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The Pittsburgh Penguins are not a better hockey team without Kris Letang but what they are in Letang’s absence is a more structured, low-risk hockey club that is reaping the benefits in the win column of late.

Thursday’s 3-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets was the type of blueprint the Penguins put together without Letang during their 2017 Stanley Cup run.

Keep teams to the outside, collapse to the middle in the d-zone by clogging up the high/low slot with bodies and playing a lower-risk opportunistic offensive brand type of hockey. Instead of running up and down the ice that leaves you susceptible to odd-man rushes the other way, a glaring problem all season and a style that is natural to go to when a high-risk offensive minded defenseman like Letang is eating up 26-28 minutes a night.

Without Letang again, the Penguins trapped it up very effectively vs the Blue Jackets in making it a struggle for the Blue Jackets in getting the middle of the ice.

Combined with great goaltending, Pittsburgh won this exact way in 2017. It’s the blueprint the Penguins need to continue when Letang returns to put themselves in the best position for a deep run. Letang has had a great bounce-back season from an offensive standpoint, but there has been a feeling in the organization that his style of play To read this insider news, subscribe to get “Inside Access”!

It’s not a coincidence the Penguins are suddenly giving up far less odd-man breaks over the last 3-4 games.

The structure the Penguins have played while Letang has been sidelined has been a great way to insulate their bottom-tier defenseman and the goaltending. It’s also their best hope for winning a couple rounds.

The all-in Columbus Blue Jackets look mentally fried. Although the two teams entered Thursday’s game separated by just two points, this home-and-home series has been all about the Blue Jackets and whether they would rise to the occasion. Saturday night now feels like a must-win for the Columbus from a mental standpoint or their season is going to come to a crashing halt.

There is so much doubt inside that room right now.

The Penguins had a lot to do with the Blue Jackets playing what felt like the entire game on the perimeter and not to take anything away from Matt Murray who was excellent in squaring up shooters, but some of the scoring opportunities hitting Murray right in the chest and multiple plays in the crease that saw pucks fumbling off sticks and going wide of the net just had the look of a hockey club 1-18 whose confidence is wrecked.

Pittsburgh’s 14-5 edge in high danger chances says it all.

The pressure has been too big for this group and things haven’t been right since Artemi Panarin’s former agent went public with the worst kept secret that Panarin would not discuss a contract until after the season.

Watching the Blue Jackets last night it was natural to wonder if John Tortorella will be around after the weekend if the Jackets lose Saturday but Tortorella being the fall guy would be the wrong move whether it happens soon (unlikely) or after the season.

Blue Jackets management deserves a ton of criticism moving forward for not eliminating the distractions surrounding Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. They’ve known since the summer both will not be resigning, had several months to muster up a trade and the all-in attitude on a club even immediately after the moves that was looked at as the 5th or 6th best team in the East, was the type of gamble that should put jobs on the line this summer. To read this insider news, subscribe to get “Inside Access”!