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Penguins Getting Healthy Heading into December

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
A Penguins team which spent much of the month of November battling injuries, particularly on defense, will receive a couple early Christmas presents as the holiday season swings into full gear. Forward Tyler Kennedy (undisclosed) and defensemen Alex Goligoski (lower body) and Kris Letang (undisclosed) returned to the lineup in the Penguins' 8-3 victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

“They have been progressing,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “They’ve advanced at practices and they look ready to go. We have three games in four nights. They possibly could have gone (Friday).

“But with that many games and coming back from injuries, this was the best for (those) guys to make sure they did not get too much work.”

Kennedy, Goligoski and Letang might not be the only presents the Penguins find under their trees this week as defenseman Jay McKee (infected finger) also continued to practice with the team on Saturday and his return could be imminent as well.

Despite all the injuries – the Penguins at one point saw nine regulars on the shelf, including five of their top-six defensemen – Pittsburgh heads into Saturday's late games tied with the Washington Capitals for most points (36) in the Eastern Conference, while their 18 wins are most in the National Hockey League.

Instead of using injuries as an excuse to slide back to the rest of the pack, the Penguins have used them as the fuel to remain among the league’s elite teams. Sidney Crosby says the team has to make sure the adjustment is seamless as the Penguins return to health.

Tonight when we get new guys back, it is even more important for us to set the tone with our play and make it as easy of an adjustment as we can for the guys coming back into the lineup. It doesn’t just happen that they come back and everything is better. We have to make it as easy as possible for them. - Sidney Crosby
“Tonight when we get new guys back, it is even more important for us to set the tone with our play and make it as easy of an adjustment as we can for the guys coming back into the lineup,” Crosby said following the morning skate prior to the Rangers' contest. “It doesn’t just happen that they come back and everything is better. We have to make it as easy as possible for them.”

Bylsma is excited because he is adding two defensemen back in the lineup who have excelled equally well at both ends of the ice through the first quarter of the season.

“The skating ability and the puck-moving ability, going back for pucks, defending the rush, getting up on the play,” Bylsma said of what Goligoski and Letang bring to the Penguins. “When you see their skating abilities, when you go back and look at the game we played against the Rangers and you see those guys moving on the ice, I think that’s what you’re going to see tonight when they get back in there.

“They’re unique players. They’re very good players. They should be adding some speed and some skating and some defending as well in the way they defend against the rush with their skating abilities, two pretty big positives.”

Letang had been out since leaving in the first period at San Jose on Nov. 7. Because it had been exactly three weeks since he last saw game action, Letang looked to keep expectations for himself modest against the Rangers.

“It has been a while so I am looking to get the first shift in, get back at it and make the simple play,” Letang said. “I want to make sure I play a good defensive game.”

As happy as Letang is to be healthy himself, he is even more excited at the prospect of the Penguins once again resembling the team which captured the Stanley Cup championship in June.

“You always want to have a healthy team,” he said. “You don’t want to have too many injuries because we are trying to build a team through the year and so far it has been tough to build. To see everyone out there is good.”

Goligoski missed six consecutive games with a lower body injury. His last game was the thrilling 6-5 overtime victory against Boston on Nov. 14. Prior to his injury Goligoski was proving to be a workhorse for the Penguins, playing over 25 minutes a night in four consecutive games, including twice exceeding 28 minutes.

Goligoski said he had never missed an extended period due to injury before this one, so sitting and watching was a new experience for the high-scoring blueliner.

“It is tough to watch any time, especially when you are hurt,” Goligoski said. “You want to be out there with your team. You cheer them on and try to get healthy as soon as you can.

“I have never been hurt for an extended period. We will see I guess. It is different playing games. I will try to ease into it and try to get comfortable out there.”

Goligoski’s partner through much of the early season, McKee, did not play Saturday night against the Rangers, but is targeting either Monday’s rematch at Madison Square Garden or Thursday when the Penguins host the Colorado Avalanche as the day for his return.

Saturday marked the sixth-consecutive game McKee has sat out since undergoing a minor surgical procedure to relieve pressure in his infected finger on Nov. 17. McKee had felt pain in the finger for some time, but he chose to play through it with all the other absences on defense.

Alex Goligoski is expected to return to the lineup against the NY Rangers on Nov. 28
“It wasn’t a major infection,” McKee said. “I had a cut on the inside of my hand that was right on the crease of my finger so every time I opened and closed my hand it didn’t allow the cut to heal.

“It was probably open for about three weeks. It wasn’t a major infection. It was the type that blew up my finger. It was good we got it early.”

While many people would say it was just a finger, McKee knew from a previous experience during his days with the Buffalo Sabres how serious an infection could get if not treated properly.

“I had a staph infection in my leg many years back,” he said. “That one was real bad. It was really affecting my whole body. I was in the hospital for some time.

“When I saw this I knew it was a red flag and that I should get it looked at. Had I waited longer and not paid much attention there would have been some serious damage to the tendons.”

Taking care of the cut before it became a major issue will allow McKee to return sooner than his original prognosis of two-to-four weeks.

“When you get something like an infection, it is not something you come across very often so I think you don’t really know what the time frame is going to be,” McKee said. “When the doctors originally said it could be two-to-four weeks you think the worst at first. It has been 10 days or so and it feels real good.

“Hopefully if these next couple practices go well and there aren’t any setbacks I am optimistic the next game I will be able to play.”

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