PITTSBURGH -- The day after the Pittsburgh Penguins completed -- some might say survived -- a 5-3 win in Game 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in which they were outshot 26-12 by the Nashville Predators, Olli Maatta got a little visit. The Penguins defenseman was approached by teammate Kris Letang, who has been sidelined for the entirety of the postseason since undergoing neck surgery on April 13. Letang didn't stop by to deliver kudos or chitchat. He specifically called on Maatta to impart the kind of in-game insight typically offered by Pittsburgh's coaching staff.
"Just positional stuff. Little details," Maatta said. "For him, the hockey IQ he has shows when he is on the ice playing. He can really bring something when he sees something up there."
"Up there" would be Mario Lemieux's owner's suite, where Letang has preoccupied himself during the Penguins' home playoff games. And he hasn't done that quietly, admitting that he's probably the loudest voice in a tense room filled with a white-knuckled group that has nervously watched a Penguins run to the Cup finals that has included two Game 7s. They were gnashing their teeth all over again as the Penguins won Game 2 despite being dominated early Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Letang's presence this postseason hasn't purely been as a boisterous spectator. He has provided an eye in the sky for the Penguins, using his top-down view of the ice to draw insights he typically wouldn't find while in the lineup. It's a role Pittsburgh's coaching staff asked him to take on, and the two-time All-Star has done it with the same passion he has applied to his 11 NHL seasons.
"I like it. I'd rather be on the ice. But I watch the games from A to Z. Sometimes I send texts between periods down below," Letang said in French. "It's just looking at certain details we can use to help with zone exits, things like that. Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who plays instead of a coach. It can be another opinion. It's fun."
Those opinions -- from a two-time Stanley Cup champion who has been the Penguins' franchise defenseman for close to a decade -- haven't been taken for granted by a Pittsburgh team that iced seven players with less than three full seasons of NHL experience in these finals.
"I think Tanger is kind of playing a little bit of a coaching role just because of his unfortunate scenario. He's a big part of this team. He's a leader on this team," forward Conor Sheary said. "Whenever he sees something, he's going to let us know about it. I think from a power-play standpoint, he's one of the best in the league, so he can help us there when he's watching from up top."
Though he hasn't been a daily fixture, Letang occasionally attends Pittsburgh's coaching meetings. It's a unique opportunity to incorporate the perspective of someone who has enjoyed the relationship that only teammates share. But while Letang has typically contributed to the Penguins' success using his hands and feet, he is now learning for the first time, at age 30, how much more he can contribute using his eyes.
That new perspective has allowed Letang to offer a helpful voice on a variety of in-game topics. Perhaps none more than the intricacies of time and space, the kind of split-second details that are difficult for players to fully appreciate when an opponent is barreling straight at them on the ice.
"It's a lot slower when you're on top," Letang said. "You kind of realize things that you don't really see at ice level. I think as a player I'm going to learn a lot too, watching in different situations."
His presence alone has been indispensable for the Penguins, especially when he traveled with the team for Game 7 of their second-round series against the Washington Capitals.
"Just having him there is a big boost. We know how bad he wants to be out there and how much he means to this team and this organization," forward Bryan Rust said. "Just knowing he wishes so bad to be out there kind of fuels us that much more."
That the Penguins are now so close to capturing their second straight Stanley Cup without the player who ranks second in scoring among defensemen in the franchise's history is encouraging in itself. That Letang might ultimately be refining his on-ice vision and becoming a better hockey player as a result of his time watching games from above could be downright frightening for the rest of the NHL.
"It's a different aspect, but I always try to think that when you're watching a game or you're getting a healthy scratch and you're up there, you're actually getting better," Letang said. "You're learning more."
The new role hasn't inspired Letang to consider a transition into coaching anytime soon. More than anything, it's an ends to a mean: an opportunity for Letang to assist his team in a way that his neck injury simply won't allow him to do on the ice. He's excited about his eventual return and an appointment with doctors in two weeks, after which he expects to be cleared to skate. He has even started wearing skates again, though not on the ice.
Itching to play and relegated to a role he wasn't expecting to fill, Letang is complementing the teammates whose respect for their franchise defenseman only grows by the day.
"He wants to be a part of this just as bad as we want him a part of it. He's around us all the time. That's just his competitive nature," Sheary said. "He wants to help the team win as much as he can. Just because he can't be out there, I think he's doing what he can to be part of it."
Thanks to Letang's new role, "it" could soon include hoisting hockey's grandest prize.