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Pittsburgh Penguins Sergei Gonchar (55) congratulates teammate Kris Letang (58) on his goal against the Ottawa Senators in the first period of Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 22, 2010. (JASON COHN/REUTERS)
Pittsburgh Penguins Sergei Gonchar (55) congratulates teammate Kris Letang (58) on his goal against the Ottawa Senators in the first period of Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final hockey game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 22, 2010. (JASON COHN/REUTERS)

Roy MacGregor

Bright light on the the Penguins blueline Add to ...

There's no need for the Montreal Canadiens to scout Kris Letang to find his weak spot. Just ask him.

"The one-timer," the young Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman says. "I've got to work on getting my shot away faster."

Let the improvement come next season, the Canadiens should hope, not this spring, with the Montreal-Pittsburgh best-of-seven second-round playoff series tied at one game apiece.

Letang, a 23-year-old native of Montreal, has a knack for big plays, whether setting goals up or scoring them himself - usually on a one-timer as he slips in, unnoticed, from the point.

In Game 1 against the Canadiens, he set up fellow defenceman Sergei Gonchar to tie the game at 1-1, and then scored the team's third goal as the Penguins romped to a 6-3 victory.

Against the Ottawa Senators in the first round, he scored the game-winner in Game 2 on a brilliant feed from Sidney Crosby, allowing the Penguins to tie the series and eventually advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

His first NHL playoff goal came in overtime last year, against the Washington Capitals. Had Letang not scored, his team would have fallen behind three games to none - and likely none of them would now be wearing Stanley Cup rings.

He is far from the biggest name on the Penguins roster - lagging some distance back from Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Gonchar and others - but he is seen as the understudy to Gonchar. Sort of the team's power-play quarterback in training.

Nor is Letang the biggest player on the team, listed at six feet and 201 pounds. (Sure, and there were indeed weapons of mass destruction, as well.)

Yet he can hit with the force of a rocket, despite his seeming slightness. Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma thinks a hard Letang hit on rock-solid defenceman Anton Volchenkov was where the Ottawa series began turning in the Penguins' favour.

Letang is happy to think of himself as the understudy to Gonchar, knowing the injury-prone 36-year-old will not be there forever. The organization basically told him that in March, when it signed Letang to a four-year contract extension, at $3.5-million (U.S.) a year. The lengthy deal meant Letang was now considered part of the team's core, along with Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and goaltender Marc-André Fleury.

The Penguins like Letang's play, obviously, but also his character, which was sorely tested two springs ago, when his best friend, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Luc Bourdon was killed in a motorcycle accident.

The players had roomed together in their time with the Val-d'Or Foreurs in junior hockey, played on two Team Canada gold-medal winners at the world junior tournament, and were planning to spend last summer working out together. Letang dealt with his grief quietly and with resolve, dedicating himself even more to the game his friend would never again play.

What Letang is, at his best, is an attacking defenceman who does not neglect his own end and does not shy away from the corners. He is such a deft, quick skater, with such an accurate shot that there are times when fans in other cities will hastily check their scoresheet to see who wears No. 58.

Letang stands in awe of his team's young captain, Crosby. Not so much for the scoring statistics and the trophies, but for Crosby's remarkable ability to reinvent himself. Crosby finds his own flaws - first, lower-body strength; then, faceoffs; this past year, shooting - and sets about to correct them for the next season. In 2009-10, Crosby's 51 goals tied him for the league lead.

"He has amazed me how he can do those things," says Letang, who intends to apply such determination to his one-timers from the point.

He studies Gonchar as if No. 55 is the Bible - watching the way the veteran Russian gets away that first long pass, trying to ride the blueline on the power play the way Gonchar does, seeking to find those same narrow corridors to the net Gonchar is a master at.

"It's someone I would like to be," Letang says of Gonchar's work running the power play. "I've always done that as a player, always looked for the chances to jump up into the play."

It comes by him naturally, as he was a forward up until 14.

"It was just for fun at first," Letang says. "Coach said we needed another 'D' for a game because one of our guys was sick. I tried it and liked it. I decided myself to switch."

He had to switch heroes, as well, changing from idolizing former Pittsburgh forward (and current club co-owner) Mario Lemieux to wanting to be able to play like smooth-skating Anaheim Ducks defenceman Scott Niedermayer.

Letang is still along way from such comparisons, but it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility given the flashes fans have seen these past two springs.

"I'm going to expect more of it next year from the way he's played," Bylsma says.

Just as the Montreal Canadiens are likely to see more of it before this year is out.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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