It was a three-step sequence one sees several times in any hockey game:

1. Defenseman pursues puck in his own end.

2. Forechecker pursues defenseman.

3. Defenseman retrieves puck and sends it back the other way.

No big deal, really.

Except when Kris Letang did it Jan. 15 in Boston.

With the Penguins protecting a 3-2 lead early in the third period, Letang and the Bruins' Brad Marchand skated hard toward the Penguins end for what -- momentarily, anyway -- appeared to be a 50-50 puck. Letang, with his back to Marchand, took his customary bonus stride to gain body position, turned his hips one way, then violently back the other way, then whirled his entire body 180 degrees.

Only to find about half the rink wide open. Marchand, the exasperated forechecker, had simply slogged back to the Bruins' bench.

The play still gets discussed internally.

"Oh, yeah, I remember," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, the man responsible for the team's defense. "It was like he created a whole open sheet of ice for himself."

"Yeah, lots of ice," Letang recalled with a smile. "That's what I like to see, when everything is calm ... making everything calm."

It is largely that trait, the ability to create what hockey coaches call "time and space," that has elevated Letang's game to where he now is a vital part of any debate involving the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL's best defenseman.

The playerAlthough Letang is the Penguins' second-leading scorer with eight goals and 38 assists, and his 46 points rank third among all NHL defensemen, his partner long has been adamant that Letang is not an offensive defenseman.

"What I've meant is that Kris isn't the type to go rushing up ice all by himself and score goals. How many times have you seen him do that?" defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "He's got the skill set to be great defensively. Everything starts with the way he's knocking guys off the puck, the way he's controlling it, the first pass, the ability to carry it ... he's getting it all done, not just putting up points."

There is other proof: Letang's plus-13 rating has no peer among the NHL's top 10 scoring defensemen, with the next highest figure at plus-2.

The coaching staff would have it no other way.

In mid-November, just before the Penguins went on a 12-game winning streak, Reirden suggested in a coaches' meeting that Letang and Orpik get matched up against the opponents' top forward line. It was not without risk: Give an offensive defenseman too much defensive responsibility, and a lot of those points can evaporate.

"This was not just about our short term, but also Kris' long term," Reirden said. "We felt this was the best way to push him to become the best, most complete player he can be. And he wants it. There's no one that I have who spends more time watching video than Kris. He's studying everything."

Perhaps exceeding expectations, Letang embraced the ro