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Penguins welcome Letang back on defense

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- The Pittsburgh Penguins will receive a boost on the blue line Thursday night, as they will welcome back Kris Letang to the lineup against the New York Rangers.

Letang has not played since suffering a concussion on Nov. 26 against the Montreal Canadiens.

Coach Dan Bylsma said Letang's minutes will be limited against the Rangers (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), but he couldn't be happier about getting back his top defenseman.

"It certainly is a situation where you're not looking to give him too many minutes," Bylsma said. "I still think he's going to be used in the top-four role against the other good players and on the power play, so he is going to play a fair amount of minutes in tonight's game."

Letang was an All-Star last season and was well on his way to a trip to Ottawa for this year's game before a hit from Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty sidetracked his season. Pacioretty delivered a hit to Letang's head late in the third period of that game that left Letang bloodied and sent him to the locker room, but he returned to score in overtime to give the Penguins a 4-3 victory.

Pacioretty was suspended three games for the hit, while Letang missed the next 21 games.

"I would say excited," Letang said of his emotions headed into Thursday's game. "When you've been out of the lineup for a long time like this, you just want to get back out there with your teammates and be part of the team."

Letang said he has no anxiety about physical contact.

"It's just going to come," Letang said. "I'm going to get hit probably before I hit somebody. I'm just focusing on the way I play the game and that's it."

Conditioning isn't a concern for Letang, either. He said he worked out and practiced daily while the Penguins spent three games on the road before returning home for Tuesday's 2-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Letang leaned on Sidney Crosby, whose concussion problems cost him the second half of last season and the first 20 games of this season before they resurfaced on Dec. 5.

"(He said) just pay attention to how your body reacts out there and make sure I'm 100 percent ready," Letang said of Crosby's advice. "Don't take any chances because you need your head for the rest of your life."

Along with Crosby and Letang, it was announced by Bylsma on Thursday that forward Arron Asham is also dealing with concussion-like symptoms. The injury list also includes center Jordan Staal, who is out 4-6 weeks after a knee-to-knee collision with the Rangers' Mike Rupp on Jan. 6, and defenseman Simon Despres, who is out two weeks with a sprained knee.

The Penguins have been ravaged by injuries for a better part of the past two seasons, so Letang's return is a welcome sight for the team, which hasn't had its top four of Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik healthy all at once all that often.

"It's good to have your top-four defenseman back on the ice, that's for sure," Bylsma said. "We certainly missed his presence back there in a lot of ways -- defending, the ability to play with the puck power-play-wise. To be able to get those four guys who we haven't really had a significant amount this year, to get them together will be a lift for our team."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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