March 22, 2007.
It's not like June 12, 2009 or December 27, 2000 or October 7, 2010 – dates that will always be etched in the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise.
March 22, 2007 was just another day. We were euphoric still from what transpired ten days earlier – the late-night announcement that the arena deal was done. To top that off, we were just nine games away from watching our team on its first playoff run in six years. Not even a 3-1 loss in a mud game to the Islanders that night did much to derail that. Pens goal by Colby Armstrong. Fleury was in net and took the loss. Trade him for a winger. He sucks.
(Jobbing of Satan as an Islander, Jason Blake "Powder" references, Arron Asham as an Islander, Ted Nolan, talk of the Islanders making the playoffs. Wow.)
Buried in the Penguins news that day was a little blurb about Shero signing some kid, some undrafted free agent from Western Michigan University named Mark Letsu. Lestatu. Letestu. Something like that. Chances are you didn't even notice.
Now fast-forward three years and a few months. That nondescript signing is tied with Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski as the Penguins' second-leading scorer. Mark Letestu is also tied with Sidney Crosby for the team lead in goals scored with four.
Mark Letestu is listed at 5'11", 195 lbs. on the Pens website. After playing four years in the lower-tier Alberta Junior Hockey League, he spent a year playing at Western Michigan University. Former Lightning forward/Penguin killer Paul Szczechura was a teammate. Letestu led the team in goals (24) and points (46) in 37 games.
His first pro season in 2007-08 was modest – 6 goals and 12 assists in 58 AHL games. In 2008-09, he exploded for 24 goals and 37 assists in 73 games. He missed ten games early in 2009-10 recovering from knee surgery, but didn't lose any steam, going 21-34-55 in just 63 AHL games. He was also a combined +33 over those two seasons. He earned himself a ten-game cup of coffee with the big club and didn't look out of place at all.
To hear local hockey media guys like Mark Madden and Rob Rossi tell it, Letestu has been on Shero's radar as a favorite prospect for a couple of years now. Letestu is vintage Shero – a cerebral player with good hands and good mobility who always seems to be in the right place, always seems to be around the puck, and always seems to make the smart play with the puck. That combined +33 over his last two seasons at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is a testament to that.
Letestu has been a bit of a revelation for this team, perhaps even more than Shero and the fans have expected. This is a team considered to be among the deepest in the league at center. The Pens have so much depth there, in fact, that Evgeni Malkin has been opened the season as a wing, even in the absence of Jordan Staal. Both Letestu and Max Talbot have each been phenomenal filling in the depth at the center spot in the lines below Crosby's top line.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, take a second and imagine what this look like once Jordan Staal returns to the lineup. Staal is expected to be the second-line center with Malkin on his wing, a move that some thought to be a risk as it took Staal out of that even-strength, shutdown role.
It's still a risky move, but Letestu's emergence this year should at least lessen those concerns a little bit. When Staal returns, Bylsma can move down Letestu down to the third line. Letestu's mobility and hockey sense should make for a nice fit in this system, especially if he's got the likes of Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and Arron Asham creating space for him. It would be a different type of third line as opposed to what we've become accustomed to seeing from The Third Line (Kennedy-Staal-Cooke), but that doesn't mean it would be worse. On this team, it may actually be a better fit.
Funny the way things tend to work out like this. The season opened with so many concerns about how moving Malkin to wing and taking Staal out of that third-line center role would impact the center depth on the team. It may very well turn out that this club had much, much more center depth than it ever really realized.
MORE THOUGHTS, DUDES…
= Hey, remember last week when the Pens weren't making the playoffs?
= So much for that power play not working. 4-for-12 in the last two games and 5-for-20 in the last three sounds much better than the 3-for-20 it put up over the first four games of the season.
= As much as Brent Johnson's goaltending has helped provide a base to get the Pens back on the winning side of each of the last three games, it's also worth noting that the rest of the roster got back to its game as well. The Pens were at their best under Bylsma during the Cup run in 2009 when they worked to get to every loose puck, win battles on the boards and in the corners, establish a forecheck and work to support the puck through all three zones. When they are on, they look like they're swarming around the opposition…like they have two or three extra skaters on the ice.
= Nice to see the physical element come back, especially in the game against Philly. It didn't take much to get the Flyers to fall back into their old ways, taking frustrated bad penalty after frustrated bad penalty. By the end of the game, the Flyers were coming unglued and they looked like a team that just wanted off the ice. Look no further than Richards whining to the media about Lovejoy and dropping some completely irrelevant comment about fighting Matt Cooke if Sidney Crosby decides to fight Dan Carcillo (who was a healthy scratch for the evening).
= The Pens appear to have gotten into Richards's head quite a bit. Matt Cooke has managed to get under his skin a few times by simply doing the things that Matt Cooke has made a career of doing; Richards practically admitted as much in the now-infamous postgame clip before storming off after giving the media what he thought were "enough quotes." Some of his comments carried a bit of irony, given that he attempted to level Cooke during the game with a blindside hit that could've been dangerous had it connected.
= Derek Engelland = Bob Boughner. And now it's rubbing off on Ben Lovejoy, too.
= Awesome tribute by the Pens to Sergei Gonchar on Monday. Even better was the standing ovation he got from the crowd that lasted almost the duration of the video tribute.
= Might be a long year for Ottawa fans. Maybe it was an off night, but that looked like a team that had a hard time keeping up with a much quicker Pens team. Alfredsson and Kovalev in particular looked like age is finally catching up to them.
= Google turned up some unreal stuff in the search for some of that stuff above.
Trib article that was written that day by Karen Price discussing Bryan Murray and his accusations that Crosby swore at him a couple of games prior. Vaguely remember this.
Youtube video of highlights from that Isles game titled "Flurry Sucks!"
WHERE'S THE KABOOM? THERE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN EARTH-SHATTERING KABOOM!
To the goal horn at the new arena. Holy shit. If you don't instinctively jump out of your seat to cheer for a Pens goal, don't worry. The goal horn will blast you out of it.