Penguins' Letang back at practice after stroke

Monday, 03.17.2014 / 2:39 PM
Wes Crosby  - NHL.com Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice Monday less than two months after having a stroke.

After his latest battery of tests doctors cleared Letang, the 26-year-old defenseman was not limited in any way throughout the session and spent multiple drills alongside defenseman Rob Scuderi, who he has been paired with when healthy.

Two weeks ago, Letang said he was unsure if he would be able to return this season, saying he is targeting "day by day" as opposed to a specific return date. It's still not clear if he'll return this season, but his tune has changed concerning that possibility.

"There's no doubt in my mind [his goal is to return his season]," Letang said. "Even the day I got the stroke, I asked the doctor when I'm going to be able to play again. So there's no doubt about it. If I'm on the ice today, it's because I want to return."

Letang said he was tired after the hour-long practice but felt good on the ice. He said doctors did not determine if the hole in his heart found after he had the stroke was its cause.

Letang was taken off blood thinners after a test determined it was safe to do so last week. He said his teammates were hesitant to be physical with him Monday, but he urged them to hit him because he wanted the contact.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he didn't think there was any risk of Letang further harming himself during practice. He also said the level Letang practiced at surprised him.

"I'm barely capable of understanding what [the doctors] tell me, let alone trying to make decisions. So I'm not really a part of it," Bylsma said. "To see him back out there … we did a drill and I'm offering resistance and to see Kris Letang coming with that speed, I was like 'Wow, haven't seen that in a lot of cases from our team.'

"So to see him back out there and skating and playing like he can, that's where my mind was [Monday]. Not any trepidation about things I don't know that much about."

The Penguins have gone 7-5-2 in 14 games since Letang left the lineup.

Letang, a 2013 Norris Trophy finalist, has 10 goals and 18 points in 34 games, but has missed 33 due to various injuries.

Scuderi, who was paired with defenseman Deryk Engelland in Pittsburgh's 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, said he was glad to see Letang back on the ice. He also said that although six weeks seems like a short time to recover from a stroke, he was not surprised by Letang's return.

"It was unfortunate because we were really just starting to get a chemistry there," Scuderi said. "We played two or three real good games in a row, and you start to feel like things are going to turn and the team is going to be healthy and we can get this thing going, but obviously it's a pretty serious thing that happened to him.

"You want to make sure his health is the focal point, but at the same time it would be nice if we could get more time together. So if he returns soon I think there's plenty of time."

Forwards Chris Kunitz (lower body) and James Neal (concussion) also practiced Monday after missing Pittsburgh's weekend losses to the Flyers, but it has not been announced if they will play against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. Forward Beau Bennett (wrist/hand), who had been limited in recent practices, also was cleared for full practice starting Monday.

The Penguins, who have lost 413 man games to injury, could benefit from some key players getting healthy. Neal said it was a boost just to have some practice.

"Getting [Kunitz] back and Beau and [Letang], it feels a lot better out there," Neal said. "Those are big guys that are a big part of our team. So get them back and we'll be feeling good."

Bennett, who has missed 55 games in his second NHL season, said he has seen Letang around the Penguins' facilities over the past month more than most other players since both are injured.

"He's great to have around in the dressing room," Bennett said. "It's great having him around and I'm glad to see he's doing well. I think [several players returning] is good for the coaches. It's fun to be a part of and hopefully we're at full strength pretty soon here."

Doctors told Letang the chance of him sustaining a second stroke is 0.01 percent, he said. Letang said that possibility does not worry him.

"I was not worried when it happened. It never crossed my mind I could have a stroke at 26," Letang said. "But if I'm worried, I'm going to step out there and it's going to happen. I'm not going to worry about that."

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