The Pens suffered a major setback on the injury front on Wednesday with the announcement that defenseman Kris Letang will miss 4-6 months after he undergoes surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.
"Right now it's pretty hard to swallow," Letang told the media at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. "It was not expected. I was going through rehab and it was going really well. In the last week it blew up on me. It's hard."
Here is everything you need to know about the injury and how it will effect Letang and the Pens now and moving forward.
- Letang suffered a herniated disc in his neck in February over an accumulation of time that was diagnosed via an MRI
- Letang tried rehabbing the injury in the hopes of returning for the postseason
- This week his rehab progress plateaued and he underwent a second MRI
- Following the second MRI, Letang will now undergo surgery
- Recovery from surgery will require 4-6 months
The herniated disc in Letang's neck is not the result of any one hit or event. It is instead the "accumulation of events over time," per head coach Mike Sullivan.
Letang had an MRI in February and has been held out of the lineup ever since - his last game was Feb. 21. At that point the Pens medical staff tried to rehab the injury without surgery in the hopes that Letang would be able to return to the lineup for the playoffs.
"Our medical staff thought it made the most sense to take a conservative approach without surgery," Sullivan said. "They were fairly confident that Kris could recover from this in time for the playoffs. We were all very confident that would be the case."
"We took a break," Letang said. "We thought the best treatment for it was to rest and try to get better and be ready for playoffs."
So Letang began rehabbing. He even reached the point where he started skating again. His next step was to rejoin the Pens for non-contact practice.
However, over the past week Letang experienced symptoms and his recovery plateaued.
"He was making significant progress. He was skating. He was on the ice," Sullivan said. "Within the last week he was symptomatic, which spurred more inquiry by our medical staff. That's how it evolved."
Letang underwent another MRI. And this time the team changed course of action and decided that surgery would be the best route to recovery.
"We asked for another MRI to make sure everything was good," Letang said. "It plateaued and I really needed surgery. That's where it stands at."
"The reality was that we were all really hopeful that we would have 'Tanger' for Game 1 of the playoffs. Obviously it didn't occur the way we wanted it to," Sullivan said. "But that's the nature of some of these injuries at this time."
IMPORTANT NOTE: Letang's herniated disc injury, while an accumulation, is not correlated to previous injuries he has suffered this season.
The Pens will now have to fill Letang's 27-plus quality minutes of ice time per night. Not an easy task.
However, the Pens have been battling through injuries all season long, including to Letang. So this is not a new challenge for the team. But it is a challenge nonetheless.
"He's an elite player and a great teammate," Sullivan said. "He's a tough guy to replace, but this team has done it all year long and that's what we're going to have to continue to do."
For Letang, the injury is another in a long list of ailments that he's suffered during his career, from concussions to a stroke.
But throughout every injury he's sustained, Letang has overcome and returned to play at an even higher level than before. And he expects this situation to be no different.
"Like I've done in the past I'll put my energy into getting better and getting back to where I was," Letang said.