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Letang knows better road is ahead

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Kris Letang cares so much about the Penguins, the organization he has won three Stanley Cups with since they drafted him back in 2005. And that's what Mike Sullivan loves so much about him.

"I sacrifice everything for this team," Letang said.

"Just his care factor for this organization and helping this team win is off the charts," Sullivan said.

That's part of the reason why Letang has been taking the Penguins' season ending so hard.

When asked to assess his play this postseason on the Penguins' locker cleanout day last week, the 31-year-old defenseman was critical of his performance - specifically in Game 5 of the Second Round against Washington.

Letang took the blame for the miscommunication between he and partner Brian Dumoulin that led to the Capitals' game-tying third-period goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov in Washington's eventual 6-3 win, and said it was something he couldn't get off his mind.

"I made a mistake and cost us the game," Letang said.

That play may be all Letang can think about right now, but one play doesn't lose a series, and one play doesn't take away from everything Letang was able to accomplish this postseason. He finished with three goals and 11 points in 12 games, which helped him vault to the top of several franchise leaderboards.

Letang became the highest-scoring blueliner in club history and set the mark for most assists by a defender, surpassing Hall of Famer Larry Murphy in both categories. He already owned the franchise records for most games played and most goals.

"There's no doubt in my mind, no matter what the situation or how big the game is, regardless of what happened the game before, there's no doubt in my mind that you can depend and rely on him," captain Sidney Crosby said. "I know everyone has good games and bad games but as a teammate you couldn't have a more dependable, reliable guy that competes the way he does.

"He might've had a tough Game 5, but he ends up scoring a goal that ties the game to make it 1-1 (in Game 6). It's easy to have all those things magnified in the course of the playoffs, when you lose that just comes with it. He's proven for a long time that he's a big part of our team."

Sullivan likes to say that hockey is a game of mistakes, and that everybody makes them. It's about reacting and responding the right way, and how important it is to put them in the past and look forward.

While Letang understands that, he said it was going to take him some time - a couple of days, perhaps even a couple of weeks - to move past the disappointment. At that point, he wants to take some more time to just focus on his family and just rest. After that, Letang plans on embracing a full summer of actually training - something he certainly didn't get last year.

Looking back on it, last summer affected him more than he expected. Letang played his last game of the regular season on Feb. 21, 2017 and underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck on April 13.

From then until training camp, Letang's recovery was a long and slow process, filled with markers, countless doctor visits and small steps. He was especially limited early on, with his neck stabilized in a collar.

He wasn't able to skate for the first time until July, and didn't get cleared for contact until Sept. 5. When he stepped onto the ice for the Penguins' preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 24, his first game action since the surgery, Letang was filled with joy and gratitude. What he didn't realize was he still had a long way to go.

"I thought I was going to be fine and I thought I was going to get over the hump in the first few weeks of the season," he said. "It didn't happen that way, it took a little bit more time. At the end of the day it is what it is, I have to be better."

The hardest part was handling the schedule after not skating a lot during the summer. Letang has always been an incredible athlete, gifted with the ability to effortlessly handle a huge workload. But this year, Letang said his conditioning was not where he hoped it would be.

"It's your body that gets tired with, say, back-to-back games," Letang said. "The second game, I felt like I was not as sharp. It was disorienting the first half, it was one good game, one bad game and it was tough to build because you always remember the bad game."

Sullivan said he had an inclination that it was going to be a difficult process for Letang to overcome the challenge of going through a major surgery and a major rehab in such a short period of time, and because of that, he knew he would have some ups and downs.

"He had some stages in the year where he was really good for us. He had other stages where he wasn't at his best," Sullivan said on locker cleanout day. "It was more just his consistency of play. Tanger and I had a discussion about this this morning. But by no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He's an elite defenseman and he still is. He had a particular challenge this year that most players don't have to go through."

And next year, now that he's healthy, Letang plans to do whatever it takes to come back better than ever.

"At the end of the day it's not the result I wanted and I'll go back, train harder and get back better," he said.

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