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Letang back to old self for Penguins after 'scary' injury

Defenseman playing big role following neck surgery six months ago

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has played more than 75 minutes in the first three games of the season. Six months ago, his neck was in a brace, immobilized after surgery, and he feared he might never be the same.

"I was scared," Letang said Saturday, hours before playing 25:59 in a 4-0 win against the Nashville Predators at PPG Paints Arena.

Letang has had multiple concussions, a broken toe, broken foot, broken hand, an elbow infection, groin and knee injuries, unspecified upper- and lower-body injuries during the past six seasons, when he has missed nearly two season's worth of games (153). Most notably, a stroke knocked him out for about three months in the second half of the 2013-14 season. 

But Letang said the neck injury he dealt with all of last season, a herniated disk that required surgery in April, was the most painful for him and the hardest to come back from.

"The stroke, it's like this, " Letang said, snapping his fingers. "It happens," Letang said. "You're in the hospital for three or four days trying to dissect what happened, what's wrong. It's scary. I'm not going to lie, it's scary. But for my career, the neck is more of an issue than the stroke. The stroke is more life, outside hockey, but for a career in hockey, the neck was scarier."  

Letang said the surgery, which knocked him out for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Pittsburgh's run to its second straight championship, couldn't be put off until after the season was over. It was more than just playing through pain. 

"There were major problems in there," Letang said. "I had to do the surgery when we found out. That was the only scary part. From there I got reassured that everything was going to be fine, but after you get the surgery, the first two weeks you're stuck in a collar or stuck in your bed. It was really hard. 

"[With] other injuries you can move. If you have shoulder surgery you can still do tons of things with your legs. With the neck, you can't even bounce. It's your neck. You can't drive. You can't do anything. That's what made it really difficult."

Video: Kris Letang lands at No. 28 on the list

Letang said he feels good now, like himself.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he hasn't worried about Letang or the ice time he gives him. That shouldn't change when the Penguins play the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). The Penguins have eliminated the Capitals from the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons. 

"He's the same player," Sullivan said. "He might be healthier now than he's been in a long time." 

Letang appreciates playing maybe more than ever. He especially appreciates being able to play healthy. He didn't do that last season.

"I played 41 games with that injury," Letang said. "I was getting treatment after treatment. I was seeing doctors just so I could play five games. Then I would see them again. It was painful." 

He finally couldn't take it anymore.

"It was just too much," Letang said. "Every little simple push was making me go nuts with pain. At one point, I had a problem with my arms too. So, when I said, 'That's enough,' I had already accumulated a lot."

He shut himself down after playing 28:49 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 21. 

"We said we'll take a month off, get back into it and be ready for the start of the playoffs," Letang said. 

Everything was looking good for a return against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 8 in Pittsburgh's second-to-last game of the regular season.

"I was feeling unbelievable. I was back to normal," Letang said. "We even took more time just so I could feel 100 percent, but then one day something went wrong in the gym. It's not like I pushed the wrong way or anything, it was just something that wasn't right."

Video: Kris Letang takes the No. 8 spot

The Penguins announced on April 5 that Letang would require surgery and need 4-6 months to recover. 

"I got shut down," Letang said. "That was hard to swallow."

Letang's fears eventually subsided a few weeks into his rehab, when he started riding an exercise bike and returned to being around his teammates. He skated regularly in a sweatsuit in practice and acted as a coach of sorts throughout the playoffs. 

He was on the ice in full uniform after Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville to celebrate the Penguins' second straight championship, one many pundits didn't think they could win without Letang.

"I was with the team so I was starting to feel better, starting to feel like myself," he said. "That's where my confidence just took over and I was like, 'This will be fine.' "

So far, he's right.

"He's just as fast as he used to be," Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. "He can play all game if he wants to." 

Letang wants to play in all 82 games, something he hasn't done since 2010-11. Now that he's back, he knocks on the wooden bench he's sitting on and talks about hope.

"I hope it's all over," Letang said. "I turned 30 (on April 24). I hope I put everything behind me and I'm on the right track."

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