Pens’ Letang back in control after hard year

Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang has stepped up his game. (AP/Keith Srakocic)

NEW YORK — It was just one year ago that Kris Letang was a Norris Trophy finalist.

We all know what has happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 27-year-old defenceman since. He struggled on-ice during last year’s premature postseason exit, failed to make Team Canada, then suffered a stroke in February. When he returned to the ice, Letang was simply aiming to regain his proverbial sea legs in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

After a 2013 post-season that ended prematurely due, in part, to Letang’s soft two-way play, the Penguins are alive and well in the 2014 tournament, thanks largely to Letang’s renewed defensive effort.

Letang notched an assist and logged nearly 28 minutes in Pittsburgh’s 4-2 Game 4 win at Madison Square Garden Wednesday.

When Brooks Orpik went down with an injury midway through the Columbus series, Letang was left to shoulder much of the burden on Pittsburgh’s top defence pair, alongside Paul Martin.

He’s always been known as a puck-moving defenceman, but playing offence hasn’t conflicted with Letang’s defensive capabilities this postseason. His 56.4 Corsi-for percentage ranks second-best among all Penguins defencemen.

“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Martin said. “He’s obviously a very talented top defenceman, and I think since playing together, you realize how good of a player he is.”

Yet Letang saved his best performance for Wednesday. Although Orpik returned to Pittsburgh’s lineup, he left just midway through the first, playing only 5:15 due to an undisclosed injury. The Penguins were forced to slow the desperate Rangers on enemy ice with just five defencemen, or face a pivotal Game 5 on Friday in Pittsburgh.

Instead, they now can close out the Rangers in Steel City.

“We were 17 minutes into the game when Brooks went down,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “Our defence had to do an unbelievable job back there.”

Letang and Martin each played a game-high 34 shifts — often against New York’s top line of Derek Stepan, Rick Nash and Chris Kreider. Letang was a plus-2 and helped limit New York to just 15 shots. Letang and Martin so frustrated that troika that the Garden was booing Nash by night’s end.

“They were outstanding,” Bylsma said.

Letang’s best play was a game-changer.

In the second period, with the score knotted at one, Nash, as he’s done so many times in his career for goals, gathered the puck with a head of steam in the neutral zone. But Letang poked the puck away from the hard-charging power forward, then found Brian Gibbons for a breakaway that would lead to Brandon Sutter’s goal. That put the Pens ahead for good.

“He breaks up that play, then springs us for that play,” Bylsma said. “I don’t think there’s enough you can say.”

The Penguins signed Letang to an eight-year, $58-million deal last off-season — an expensive investment that looks to be paying off. It’s ironic that Letang was nominated as the league’s best defenceman last year, because we’re seeing the young player at his best now.

Add to his play the fact he’s not yet three months removed from a near-death experience, and it leaves more to marvel at.

“Each game, he’s continued to get better,” Martin said. “He comes back from a stroke, and it takes a while to feel like you’re back in the swing of things.”

Letang is obviously back in the swing of things. If this keeps up, his $7.25-million salary may become a bargain.

And the Pittsburgh Penguins may well be on their way to another Stanley Cup.