Letang among playoff hinge players

With Kris Letang and Paul Martin back on the ice, Pittsburgh's defense group is as good as any. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Things are coming together quite nicely for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs close in, and not just because they beat their potential first-round opponent in the shootout on Wednesday night. With the impressive return of Kris Letang, the defense is shaping up to be as good as any in the East if everyone is healthy and playing well. Letang played 22:30 in his first game back and earned an assist, which is incredible considering the news of his stroke earlier this season.

Having Paul Martin and Letang both now both healthy and contributing will go a long way towards improving possession numbers that were average for the Penguins this season. With the score close, their Corsi For percentage (a metric that tracks shot attempts) is 49.7 percent this season, putting them at No. 15 in the league.

“Putting Paul Martin back in our lineup, almost immediately, you can see how it changes things for our team in terms of being able to not spend time in the defensive zone, being able to exit the zone with the puck,” head coach Dan Bylsma told Pittsburgh reporters on Wednesday. “Kris is very similar in that regard to Paul."

With the defense shaping up, the next sign the Penguins are ready to make a run is when Bylsma has a third line that he can trust in the playoffs. When you think back to what made the Cup-contending Penguins so good, it was due in large part to the play of Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal.

Pittsburgh will be tough to beat if the Penguins find a trio that can come close to duplicating what those three brought to the table.

“All three of us were just committed to not getting scored on,” said Cooke. “We committed to getting pucks in the offensive zone, committed to spending time there. There were games against Philly, games against Detroit that we didn’t score. Out of 15 minutes we spent probably 13 in the offensive zone, forcing teams to defend.”

One possibility is the line Bylsma used Wednesday night of Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass, although the health of Marcel Goc will factor in to that equation at some point in the postseason.

If Sutter plays well, like he did against Detroit, and anchors a line Bylsma can use as a shutdown trio, it frees up Sidney Crosby and the top six to focus on offense. It’s also a role Sutter is eager to reclaim, although with injuries this season isn’t one he’s had much opportunity to seize.

“That’s a role I like doing and something I challenge myself with,” Sutter said when we chatted recently. “It just doesn’t happen a whole lot.”

On a team loaded with stars, the play of a guy like Sutter and his linemates can make the difference in a playoff series. That’s how it is all over the league.

Here’s a look at seven other hinge players -- no goalies allowed, that's too easy -- whose success in the postseason could tip the balance of a tight series:

Thomas Vanek, Montreal Canadiens

Vanek is one of those players who you might not notice for stretches of time, but then he breaks the game open with a pass or goal only he can make.