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Insider Only Letang a force in all three zones and other key takeaways in Penguins 3-1 win over Flames

letang PENGUINS 3 – FLAMES 1
In their first game of the season without captain Sidney Crosby, the injury-riddled Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to get past the Calgary Flames Friday night, 3-1. The Penguins picked up two points against a hard-working Flames team that has played well beyond expectations so far this season, but are starting to fade of late, losing their fourth straight.
Blake Comeau (9) and Kris Letang (5) scored first period goals and Rob Klinkhammer (4) added a late third period goal to seal the win over the Flames. Evgeni Malkin added two assists. Marc Andre Fleury made 26 saves, earning his 16th win of the season.
— Main takeaways from Friday’s game —

After missing the past few weeks with a groin injury, Kris Letang’s first game back was a statement contest for a defenseman with Norris Trophy aspirations. On top of scoring the team’s second goal with a deflection in front, Letang was a force in all three zones. The team’s special teams are also remarkably upgraded with Letang in the line-up. From taking passing lanes away while down a man to quarterbacking a power play, Letang’s presence made a huge difference in the game.
What benefited the team the most from Letang’s return was their transition game. In head coach Mike Johnston’s system, designed for creativity from Pittsburgh defensemen, Letang effortlessly skated the puck out of his own end when the team seemed trapped on multiple occasions. Getting more than 27 minutes of ice time, Letang’s presence was a huge factor in getting the team a win Friday night.

The Flames’ defense was actively involved in all three zones for the duration of the game. Marc Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman were consistently pushing the pace of the play, moving up the ice as the fourth forward on a majority of zone entrances.
The speed and skill from Calgary’s back end was noted by the coaching staff before the game and it was certainly a factor in keeping the Penguins’ forwards honest in their own end. With only a few forwards capable of creating offense, the production from the blue line has been a factor in Calgary’s fast start and the team will need to see more of the same to keep pace in an extremely tough Western Conference.

A perfect 5/5 on the penalty kill, the Penguins got a gutsy effort from their penalty killers Friday night. While Craig Adams may not be a very capable forward at even strength in the NHL anymore, there’s no denying that every game he knows his assignments when the team is a man down. Adams also isn’t afraid to sacrifice his body for the good of the team, putting his face in front of pucks while down a man in a regular season game against a Western Conference opponent in mid-December.
The team’s defensemen also were solid when down a man. Whether it was cutting off passing lanes, picking up sticks in front of the net or digging loose pucks out of the corner, the defensemen played a big part of keeping the Flames’ power play quiet.
By taking passing lanes away, Pittsburgh kept Calgary to the outside, allowing just 5 power play shots.

On Friday night, Simon Despres had another big game, making the most of his 12 minutes of ice time. A physical presence for most of the season, Despres delivered a crushing hit that knocked Calgary defenseman Ladislav Smid out of the game. In his own zone, Despres keeps an active stick, taking away passing lanes and tying up forwards in front of the net.
As well as being defensively responsible, Despres also made sound decisions with the puck, making accurate outlet passes that catch the forwards in stride and finding open ice to move the puck into the neutral and offensive zone. Most importantly for Despres, he’s been consistent this season, a word executives stress with players trying to become full-time NHL contributors. With where his game is now, it’s hard to see Despres watching from the press box when the team’s blue line is completely healthy.

Based on performance alone, this has been a strong season to date for defenseman Rob Scuderi. After vowing to come back stronger after a down year in 2013-14, Scuderi has done just that. In sticking with his game, Scuderi has given the team a solid 15-18 minutes a game most nights, and Friday’s game against the Flames saw Scuderi log 16:39.
Most effective on the penalty kill, Scuderi was good in taking away space from Calgary forwards around the crease and taking away cross-ice passes down low. His simple, steady game makes him a great anchor for the Penguins’ third pairing. Scuderi’s ability to eat up minutes on the penalty kill also takes pressure off the likes of Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff and Olli Maatta.
While Scuderi’s contract – he makes $4 million this season ($3.375MM cap hit) – can certainly be called into question, his game cannot. A healthy Rob Scuderi could be a big factor down the stretch and into the post-season, especially with his lengthy post-season resume that includes three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, two championship rings and more than 100 playoff games.

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Tim Bugaile

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