-- As Pittsburgh Penguins
teammates Sidney Crosby
and Kris Letang
rode together to the rink daily, each player having been kept off the ice by concussions, they couldn't help but compare notes.
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 19
SOG: 64 | +/-: 5
"It's a frustrating injury and you can't do anything about it except rest," Letang said Tuesday after practicing for the first time since getting hurt Nov. 26 in Montreal. "I tried to learn from other players who went through it. It's a big thing now -- our game is faster and guys are stronger, and you have to be more aware on the ice, be more careful."
Letang, the Penguins' most offensively skilled defenseman, had never had a concussion during his hockey career prior to his current injury. After going through one, he said it's obvious why it often takes so long to return from an injury that makes it difficult to engage even in the simplest things, such as listening to the radio, watching TV or talking to friends.
"Dizziness, nausea, headaches -- like all my entourage said, I was irritable, but that was from the fact I wasn't playing hockey," said Letang, who was joking.
Most of all, the 24-year-old Letang tried to learn from Crosby. The Penguins' captain has played just eight games since Jan., 5, 2011, while twice dealing with extended concussion-related layoffs. He hasn't played since Dec. 5, or slightly more than a week after Letang was hurt.
"We spent a lot of time together, watching games together, coming to the rink together," Letang said. "But like every concussion, for everybody it is different. We were just talking about it, who he's got as a reference to go see, and who did I see."
Letang has been cleared to practice and play, but because he has yet to go through a full practice, he will not return immediately. He hopes to resume playing before the All-Star break next week. Crosby is skating with his teammates, but still is having concussion-related balance problems and is not close to playing again.
Crosby was away from the Penguins on Tuesday as he consulted with Ted Carrick, a Georgia-based chiropractor who also works with concussion patients. Crosby believes his late-summer sessions with Carrick helped him improve enough to go through a full training camp.
As Letang improved, he spent a week in Canada working with Francois Chaput, another chiropractor who specializes in concussion patients. Letang also brought Chaput to Pittsburgh with him for a week in advance of his return to the ice.
As much as Letang is eager to play again, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma
equally is excited about getting him back. All of his top-four defensemen -- Letang, Brooks Orpik
, Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
-- have had extended injury layoffs this season, and Bylsma can't wait to have all four playing at the same time.
Bylsma could see improvement in the Penguins' defensive-zone play as soon as Martin returned Jan. 11 after missing seven of nine games with a lower-body injury.
"With three shut-down guys, with Brooks Orpik
as well, they've been able to really do a good job of eliminating other teams' opportunities," Bylsma said. "We haven't given up a lot to other teams' good players.
"The three of them together have been a big part of that. The last three or four games may have been the best they've played all year. You see how much we miss when we have just one or two of those guys in the lineup. Hopefully we can add Kris Letang
to that top four soon."
Letang was off to a strong start, with 3 goals and 16 assists in 22 games, but he suffered a concussion and a broken nose when he was hit by the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty
in the third period Nov. 26 in Montreal. Pacioretty was suspended three games for an illegal hit to the head.
Letang had his nose re-set in time to return and score the game-winning goal in overtime as Pittsburgh won 4-3. It wasn't until the next morning that the concussion-related symptoms surfaced.
Letang never thought about not returning to the game.
"I'm somebody who's kind of rough with injuries. I don't really pay attention to them," Letang said. "The first thing I noticed was my nose was not in place, so we took care of that. After that, it was just a question of being able to function. I was pretty pumped to get back out there. I was excited. The adrenaline was still pumping in my veins."
Until Tuesday, he hadn't been on the ice since.
"Honestly, it was a rough time," he said. "It feels great to be back."