Head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed that the Penguins defenseman will return to the lineup Thursday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden after missing the last 21 games with a broken nose and concussion sustained Nov. 26 vs. Montreal.
“Excitement,” Letang said when asked how he feels about returning after such a
lengthy absence. “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.”
While Bylsma will be monitoring Letang’s minutes, he said the plan is to utilize him both in a top-four role and on the power play.
“It certainly is a situation where you’re not looking to get him too many minutes, but I still think he’s going to be used in a top-four role against their good players and on the power play,” Bylsma said. “So he’s going to play a fair amount of minutes in tonight’s game.”
That’s fine with Letang, who’s been pushing himself hard ever since he was cleared to skate in order to do just that.
“I stayed home during the trip because I was conditioning, practicing everyday, working out everyday,” said Letang, who averaged a team-leading 26:10 minutes per game before his injury. “I felt pretty good out there.”
Since returning to practice with the team on Tuesday, Letang has mostly been skating with usual defense partner Brooks Orpik
– who cautioned that it will take some time for Letang to regain top form.
“He’s got to get his timing back. You can’t just expect him to get back to where he was when he got hurt,” Orpik said. “But I know he worked hard to get back and he did a lot of conditioning to try to get as close as he can back to normal. The six guys that have been playing have been playing really well, but any time you get a guy like him back – he’s a tough guy to replace.”
Adjusting to the speed and timing of the game is always a concern with players returning from injuries. But with players like Letang who are returning from concussions, getting reacclimated with the physicality of the sport is also pertinent.
But Letang was aware of that, and the 24-year-old prepared accordingly during his rehabilitation period so that he will have no hesitation in dishing or receiving hits.
“Obviously I want to be careful, but my game is to go all out,” he said. “I’m physical, I’m up in the play. I’m trying to bring a different aspect to the game. I was expecting to think about what was going to happen when I got back, so I really worked on the mental side of the game and making sure that when I step in, I’m not afraid to get hit.”
Overall, the guys are just pumped to have the All-Star defenseman back in the lineup.
“Everybody on our team is excited because he’s a great player and we miss him,” defenseman Zbynek Michalek
said. “It’s going to be a big boost for everybody and a big help. We are looking forward to having him back in the lineup for sure.”