Gameday 34: Thanks Letang!

The Pittsburgh Penguins have headed home for New Year’s after a seven-game stretch during which they had a 5-1-1 record, capped off by Wednesday’s massive 7-0 win over their Metropolitan Division rivals, the New York Islanders. The cynic in me will be quick to point out that the win more or less washes out the 7-0 loss the Penguins suffered at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs a week-and-a-half ago, but at the end of the day a win is a win and a loss is a loss, and it’s much more fun to bask in the glow of routing an opponent than the reverse.

And yes, thank you very much to assistant captain Kristopher Joseph Pierre Irwin Letang, who was instrumental in the Penguins’ win with a record-tying six assists and an incredibly record-breaking five assists in the second period alone. He had the primary assists on both Evgeni Malkin’s second goal of the night (which put him ahead of Sergei Fedorov for second amongst Russian-born players in goals scored), as well as the first career goal for Valtteri Puustinen.

Hey Geno, wake up … WE’RE IN!

I have long been a proponent of Letang not working a ton of minutes, but with him being by far the team’s #1 defenseman for years it’s been unavoidable until this past offseason with the acquisition of Erik Karlsson. With the addition of Karlsson, the weight has been off Letang’s shoulders a little bit (although he’s still the team leader in time on ice) and he’s been less prone to the hiccups and giveaways that we’ve come to be familiar with in his game. More amusingly, the outburst propelled Letang over Karlsson for the team’s points lead amongst defensemen, which is a great problem to have.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, thanks to their sluggish start over the first twenty-something games, they need to maintain or improve on their pace. Despite their improved performance of late, they’re still stuck at seventh in the Metropolitan Division, three points behind the Washington Capitals for the second Wild Card seed in the Eastern Conference, and six points out of second place in the division. Every team above them in the Metro Division standings has a better record than the Penguins over the last ten games. They will have the opportunity over the next couple of weeks to claw away at their division rivals’ positions, with games against the Islanders and Capitals sandwiching New Year’s Day and trips to Philadelphia and Carolina in the second week of January, but then it’s a full five weeks of games against non-division opponents (in fact, majority Western Conference), so the window to close the gap and maybe get ahead is brief.

Tonight Pittsburgh starts a three-game homestand against the St. Louis Blues, who are playing the second game of a back-to-back after facing the Colorado Avalanche last night. The Penguins will look to split the two-game set against the Blues, as they took a 4-2 loss against St. Louis on October 21. As bad as Pittsburgh’s start was this season, it was even worse for the Blues, as they went 13-14-1 in their first 28 games. It was a poor enough start that St. Louis bade farewell to their head coach of five-plus seasons Craig Berube and replaced him with rookie head coach Drew Bannister.

The switch appears to have worked, at least in the brief time that he’s been on the job, as the Blues have won five of the six games they’ve played with Bannister at the helm, and against some fairly tough competition as well (two wins against Dallas, a win against Florida). It’s been enough to keep St. Louis in the Wild Card hunt in the Western Conference, as they sit one point behind their Central Division rivals Arizona and Nashville for both Wild Card spots.

One thing to watch out for is who starts in goal tonight for St. Louis. Jordan Binnington has been his mercurial self and as such is a good matchup for the Penguins, but they have a new backup in Joel Hofer who is in his first full season platooning for the Blues and has outperformed Binnington thus far this season. Pittsburgh constantly has problems with unfamiliar goaltenders, so it will be interesting to see how Bannister decides to roll his tandem, first against a division rival (against whom you would think they’d start the stronger of the two) before a quick turnaround for a second game against a non-conference opponent.