ARLINGTON, Va. -- That Kris Letang is a major focal point of the Washington Capitals' forecheck surprises absolutely no one. But it's how the star Pittsburgh Penguins blueliner deals with it in this series that's going to have a major impact on the outcome of it.
Right from puck drop in Game 1 Thursday night, the Caps took their licks on Letang whenever they could, sometimes even going out of their way to lay a hit on him. It's about a seven-game investment, hoping to wear down the most important player in Pittsburgh's speedy transition game.
In other words, cut off the head of the snake and you'll come out on top.
The strategy is as old as dirt.
"I think back to the 1974 Cup final between Philadelphia and Boston," legendary coach Scotty Bowman said Friday. "Everyone used to keep the puck away from Bobby Orr but [former Flyers coach] Fred Shero said no, put the puck near him and put everyone on him. He wanted to target Orr so that they knew where the puck was going, they didn't want him to carry it, they wanted him to be forced to move it. Everyone was shocked when it happened. No one had ever done that with Orr."
The Flyers went on to win that series and the Cup, so it's a practice that's been copied ever since.
From the eight-time Norris Trophy-winning Orr to the seven-time Norris Trophy-winner Nicklas Lidstrom, the idea of wearing down the opposing stud blueliner, putting pucks in his corner and making him pay a price while retrieving it has been a go-to for teams.
"In a playoff series, you figure it out pretty quick that they might be trying to put the puck in your corner a little bit more, or they're coming after you to finish checks a bit later than maybe they normally do," Lidstrom said Friday over the phone from his native Sweden.
"From Game 1, you figure it out pretty quick. In my case, I always tried, first of all to move my feet, but also expect to be hit. You know you're going to be hit, you know you've got to go back and move the puck. I played with some good partners over the years, you tried to move the puck real quick and make a good first outlet pass. But just expecting to get hit, you know it's going to be a grinding series, where they're going to come after you more than they do in the regular season. Really expecting to get hit really helps your mindset."
It's funny how nobody ever seemed to get a clean hit on Lidstrom, though. His situational awareness on the ice was unreal. Letang, in fact, was mentioning Friday about how when the Penguins played Lidstrom's Red Wings in back-to-back Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, that the game plan was to get to try to get to Lidstrom and yet the Penguins' forecheckers had such a tough time squaring him up.
"Lidstrom was so good at that," Letang said.
When Bowman coached Lidstrom in Detroit, the Wings also did something to help alleviate some of the impact on their superstar defenseman from opposing forecheckers.
"We used to try to get the other guy playing with Nick to get the puck, even if it went in his corner we tried to get the other guy to go get it," Bowman said.
In that case, Lidstrom would hold up a forechecker to help his partner who was retrieving the puck.
"Especially for the partners that I had, you tried to be moving all the time, whether you're doing a reverse or you're chipping it off the boards to your teammate or you're holding up," Lidstrom said.
In a long series, it's also important to live to fight another day and pick your battles, he added.
"Some nights you have to kind of wait for your opportunity, when to be part of the offense," Lidstrom said. "Knowing when to just chip it off the boards sometimes and take the hit, you know next time you'll make a better play. But the wear and tear of playing every other night in a series like that, you're going to get hit a lot. You have to be smart about it."
Told of Lidstrom's comment, Letang on Friday nodded.
"I think he's right," Letang said. "When you have a long series like that and they want to target you, sometimes you see a simple play, you have to make it. Some guys have a certain skill set, they want to make a better play, but sometimes to get the simple play and get the puck out is the best thing."
Still, Letang took a few big ones in Game 1.
"Going back for the puck in our zone, you want to go as fast as you can," Letang said. "It's going to allow you a little more time. You're going to have time to shoulder check and see what's coming at you.
"As far as making a play and taking a hit, that's playoff hockey. You're going to take some hits and give some."
After Game 1, Letang couldn't sleep, so he grabbed an iPad and watched video of what the Caps' forecheckers were doing.
"They have different line combinations that forecheck differently," Letang said. "So you have to be aware of who's on the ice against [whom]. They have two lines that have a heavy forecheck and have two lines that rely on their skill and speed."
John Carlson is the No. 1 defenseman on the Caps. He knows what it's like to be targeted from the opposing forecheck. But he also knows why it's important for his team to be doing it to Letang.
"I think you look at it two ways: the more that we can disrupt him, get him off balance, it saves you a couple of seconds coming back because it's hard to jump into the play when you're getting hit," Carlson said Friday. "But also yeah, it's a tough game, especially for a defenseman, everyone's gunning every shift. If you're going to be playing a lot of minutes, you got to go back for the puck a lot of times. ...
"It's important for our team to do it because we are a good forechecking team and to take away some of their rush game is important because he's dangerous offensively if he gets in the rush."
Letang said bring it on. The targeted forecheck doesn't bother him.
"I do like it. It gets me in the game," Letang said. "I like the emotion that comes out of it. I like to play in those games, so if they want to bring a heavy forecheck, it's going to open up ice for other guys on the ice."