Kris Letang is someone you can't replace on any blue line. He eats 30-plus minutes per game on average and his tenacity and spunk can really only be matched by one other person wearing a Penguins sweater (Patric Hornqvuist). Not to mention he is a staple on the Power Play unit. Who was going to step up? Who was going to take up the ice time and get the Penguins through to a victory?
That who came in the form of six men who were asked to "step it up" and "rise to the occasion" and they used that as nothing short of motivation, especially Trevor Daley.
Daley was moved up to first defensive pairing with Brian Dumoulin and the duo was nothing short of brilliant. Daley was on the ice for a career-high 29 minutes and was credited for the games opening goal. He has been brilliant throughout the entire playoffs thus far, setting up goals for his fellow players such as Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin,
Dumoulin, on the other side of the equation, keeps his ax to the grindstone. He had 3 shots on net and tallied 2 assists. He is a key factor in keeping the puck in the offensive end of the ice and he is well overdue for that goal he has been itching to get. Whether he scores or not, no one can say that Dumoulin isn't earning his keep.
Then there is the bottom pair of Ian Cole and Justin Schultz. Schultz came into his first playoff game cold having spent some time in the press box with fellow nacho aficionado, Derrick Pouliot. He had not seen game ice time since April 13th against the New York Rangers. When he came over from Edmonton it took some time for him to find a rhythm here in Pittsburgh but he eventually found success with Cole and on the Power Play. Though not putting up any spectacular numbers and only registering two shots, he was no less physical or effective throughout the game.
Ian Cole (who played 17 minutes) feels that the Penguins defense has been under-rated all season. I would be inclined to agree. When games or leads were on the line, they continued to shock fans by doing whatever necessary to come out with a victory, Then again when you have phenom, Matt Murray, between the pipes (who became the first rookie goalie in 30 years to lead a playoff series against the Presidents Trophy winning team since Mike Vernon in 1986) even if the defense lags for a second, there is more than satisfactory back up to bail them out.
Even Ben Lovejoy (who I admittedly have not been the biggest fan of) is playing some of the best hockey of his career. He is getting more physical and doesn't mind chirping at his opponents when ever he can. Maybe that is who Bryan Rust took a page from?
Lovejoy also has a very bright future as a sports analyst or commentator as he never shies away from an opportunity to talk to the press. When interviewed after the game he joked about fellow defense man, Kris Letang, and how Letang would be ready to play 42 minutes in the game on Saturday.
All 6 defensemen played to their strengths. They got into shooting lanes, blocked shots, and did not shy away from physical play and hard checks. They wanted to make it known that even without Letang for a game that they could still be a strong group. And although Pouliot struggled, he is at least trying (or seems to be trying) to the best of his ability. It is becoming quite clear more work needs to be done with Mr. Pouliot but I am hoping for the best and that he will develop more and FINALLY live up to his potential because right now he is blowing a golden opportunity.
As the playoffs continue to roll on, more will be asked of these men down the line. They have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are serious, that they are a force and that they will make any opponent work for every inch of ice with or without their stars.