Future looks bright for Pens' Letang

NEW YORK -- One month ago, Dan Bylsma had no expectations for Kris Letang. He couldn't. It's one thing to have a specific timeline for a broken hand or injured foot.

But a stroke?

"A month ago, I didn't anticipate him, didn't think about him playing one game," Bylsma said on Tuesday afternoon following an optional Penguins practice. "It just wasn't a part of the thought process in terms of our team."

On April 9, Letang returned. He played 22:30 against the Red Wings in a shootout win, which was an accomplishment in and of itself. A week later he made his 2014 playoff debut, and that's where the Letang story started to turn.

It was amazing that he came back, but in those first few games against the Blue Jackets, it was fair to question just how effective Letang could be at this point in his recovery.

The Blue Jackets' internal game plan was to target Letang as much as possible, put the puck in his corner and hit him early and often. Maybe even frustrate him into a retaliation penalty or two.

They knew giving Letang any space was deadly, and, for a few games, Letang was limited. By the time the series was tied 2-2, Letang was a minus-3 and had eight penalty minutes. He didn't have a point.

"I'm not going to lie, the first four games of the playoffs, I was kind of scared to make mistakes," Letang said. "I got some critics last year on my defensive play. I was a little bit on my heels."

In a way, Letang reflected the Penguins as a whole.

"I don't differentiate Kris in that regard from the rest of our team the first four games of our playoffs," Bylsma said. "We probably didn't want to make mistakes the first four games. We've got to overcome that and talk about what we learned -- that's maybe one of the things. Kris did learn to trust his game, a little bit more as he got his feet wet and started to play."

In the series against the Rangers, we're seeing the results. Now paired with Paul Martin, Letang is starting to find his game. While nobody on the Penguins is excited about how they played in the third period of Game 3, the overall picture for Letang is brighter. The least he's played against New York is 24:26, which is six minutes more than he played in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets.

He has a goal and two assists and, after finishing with 10 penalty minutes against the Blue Jackets, doesn't have one penalty minute against the Rangers.

When he's on the ice in the postseason, the Penguins control 53.9 percent of the even-strength shot attempts.

Bylsma isn't ready to declare that Letang has arrived completely, but he's now at the point where he's growing into an impact player in this postseason, amazing considering how things looked a month ago.

"I don't have a gauge on whether to say he's back, but he's been stepping into playing next to Paul, has been really good for us," Byslma said. "Really good for us."

The goal of any Stanley Cup-hopeful team is to get better with each game, to show growth from round to round. Letang and his teammates are showing that growth. Marc-Andre Fleury is light years ahead of what he was against the Blue Jackets.

Brandon Sutter has emerged as a threat at center, which allows Bylsma to stick with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a line.

The trio of Sutter, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen is becoming an important one for Byslma.

"They've done a good job, maybe really at times have been our most dangerous line," Bylsma said. "We've used them in the defensive zone with that line, and it's helped us play defense as well. That's a luxury to have and come back with Marcel [Goc] and Sid as your other two centermen. It's a pretty good option to have." 

All those questions that were raised during the first round are starting to be addressed. Could Letang lift his level of play to what we've come to expect? Do the Penguins have enough depth behind Crosby to make a long run? Can Fleury stand tall under pressure?

It's too early to form definite conclusions just yet, but the evidence is piling up in the Penguins' favor after a rocky start.

"We had to learn quick, and I think we did," Bylsma said. "But I also think we're still not at our best yet."