CRANBERRY, Pa. — Kris Letang said the Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen are among the best he’s played with in his 14 NHL seasons.
“I think it’s a well-balanced D-corps for the perspective of offense and defense,” Letang said. “I rank them probably in the top two. One or two, probably.
“Obviously, we have veteran guys like [Schultz], Jack, [Dumoulin], myself. We also have guys like [Marino] and [Pettersson] that are becoming really good defensemen. We have [Juuso] Riikola. We’re pretty fortunate to have those young guys.”
The Penguins, who were 40-23-6 (.623 points percentage) before the regular season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will play the No. 12 seed, the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, .500), in one of four best-of-5 series that will begin Aug. 1 in Toronto, the Eastern Conference hub city.
The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, to be held Aug. 10.
Video: PIT@DET: Dumoulin redirects Tanev’s feed on the rush
Because of pause, Letang, who missed eight games in November because of a lower-body injury, said he feels refreshed ahead of the Qualifiers and that he’s also sensed the same from his fellow defensemen early in camp.
Dumoulin missed 37 games because of ankle surgery before returning and playing the final five games before the pause, and Schultz missed 16 games because of a lower-body injury before returning at the end of January.
“When you finish an 82-game season, sometimes you’re tired a little bit or you have a couple bumps and bruises, injuries,” Letang said. “This time around, you kind of have the chance to heal and reenergize yourself. I think it’s actually a good thing for our team.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan agreed.
“He’s got a jump in his step,” Sullivan said of Letang. “When you have to play an 82-game schedule, it’s a grind. Physically, it’s a grind. … I think [Letang] handles it extremely well, but to have an opportunity to have a break like we had, maybe the silver lining in it is guys get an opportunity to get some rest.”
Letang had 44 points in 61 games this season, including 15 goals, which were tied for fourth among NHL defensemen. He also led the Penguins in average ice time per game (25:44, fourth in the League).
He will be looking to win his fourth Stanley Cup championship with the Penguins, and Dumoulin and Schultz will each be looking for his third championship with Pittsburgh. If they are able to win another title, Letang said it would cement their legacy.
“It would be unbelievable. I think just winning a championship is something that is extraordinary,” he said. “You grew up as a kid and you just wanted to play in the NHL. When you have the chance to be on a team like ours and to be successful like we’ve been, to have another championship would solidify what we’ve been able to accomplish in Pittsburgh.
“It would mean a lot. It would mean like all the others, I would say.”
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