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Penguins' Letang finding form 3 months after stroke

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- That defenseman Kris Letang has keyed the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Rangers isn't entirely surprising.

Letang has provided a spark on Pittsburgh's vaunted rush, much as he has throughout his NHL career. The Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 heading into Game 4 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Letang had three points in Game 2, including the game-winning goal, before finishing Game 3 with a plus-1 rating and 24:31 in ice time, which ranked second on the Penguins.

What is surprising is he's doing it slightly more than three months after having a stroke.

It was on Jan. 29 that Letang's wife, Catherine, found him lying on the floor of their home, alert but unable to function. As word of the stroke spread, heartfelt wishes flowed in from across the hockey world. It was a reminder for many of where the game ultimately ranks on the grand list of life's main priorities.

The stroke did not require surgery and was not connected to hockey, and the initial prognosis was for Letang to miss at least six weeks.

"It's been a tough couple of months for him, but he's back now. He's playing great. At the time, it was pretty scary for everyone involved," Penguins center Brandon Sutter said. "It's something you don't want to see, but he's been great since he came back. We're glad he's feeling well and playing well. We definitely need him, so it's good."

After missing 26 games, Letang returned to Pittsburgh's lineup on April 9. He had four points in the last three games of the regular season, but Letang, a two-time All-Star and 2013 Norris Trophy finalist, went without a point and posted a minus-3 rating in the first four games of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Thrown into the turbo-charged competition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it appeared as if Letang, who turned 27 on April 24, wasn't yet ready for the breakneck pace.

"I'm not going to lie, the first four games of the playoffs I was kind of scared to make mistakes. I think I was a little bit on my heels, trying to accomplish too much," Letang said. "[I need to] just try to play my game. My game is being aggressive and skating and being able to be in the play all the time and supporting my forwards. Once I was able to do that, my game kind of changed."

It was when Letang's game changed that Pittsburgh's fortunes suddenly turned.

Skating alongside Paul Martin on Pittsburgh's top defensive pairing, Letang earned more and more minutes in every conceivable situation. With Pittsburgh nursing one-goal leads in Games 5 and 6 against Columbus, Letang earned big shifts in the final moments.

Having his star defenseman available with the game hanging in the balance was an option Penguins coach Dan Bylsma never contemplated one month ago.

"A month ago, I didn't think about him playing one game. It just wasn't a part of the thought process, in terms of our team. We know what the doctors had said and the situation he was in," Bylsma said. "Paul Martin had an injury to his hand two months ago. You know in six weeks he's going to be back. With Kris' situation, you just didn't have any anticipation. We didn't put any thought into if he was going to be back in 10 weeks playing at a high level."

It may have taken a difficult transition in the early going, but Letang does appear to be back. He's been a central figure in Pittsburgh's attack, looking to pinch offensively when the opportunity arises. It's that ability to supplement the Penguins' rush that makes the team so dynamic offensively.

Recapturing the aggressive game that made him one of the NHL's most dangerous defensemen was a comfort for Letang.

"It's easier when I move my feet out there than when I stand still," Letang said. "I'm more of a guy who can make plays on the rush."

The Penguins went 13-10-3 in Letang's absence and are thrilled to see his play improve as his confidence grows. There's no downplaying the jolt the Penguins get from a player who, for a few weeks during the season, reminded everyone how quickly life can suddenly take an unexpected and scary turn.

"Right now, it's really just a blessing, to be honest with you," Bylsma said. "To see him out there playing at his level and playing so many minutes, it's nothing more than a blessing."

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