When defenseman Kris Letang met with doctors after suffering a stroke on Jan. 29 the first thing he wanted to know:
“When would I be able to play hockey again?”
The answer to that question came 10 weeks later when Letang returned to the ice in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 shootout victory against the Detroit Red Wings at CONSOL Energy Center Wednesday night.
“I felt pretty good,” said Letang, who has missed the last 26 games due to the stroke. “I had a lot of fun. It wasn’t perfect structure-wise for me. I’m just happy to be on the ice. It’s something I missed a lot. I’m glad to play with this bunch of guys in this dressing room. It was fun to be a part of.”
Letang, 26, saw 22:30 minutes of ice time and assisted on the Penguins’ third goal. Letang, who is a physically conditioned specimen, saw regular shifts over the boards and played in all situations – five-on-five and special teams.
“At one point in the game I looked at him and he didn’t have a drop of sweat on him. He’s got a unique and rare condition and skating ability,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s been out a long time, he’s been out a couple months and he looked pretty darn good out there defending, defending against good players and playing hard. He made some good plays and made a difference in the game.”
And as expected, Letang had to shake off a lot of rust after missing 10 weeks of action.
“There were things I felt good about,” Letang said. “I have to get my timing back. Hockey is about timing. It may take a week or two weeks. But it’s good to get that one behind me.”
Letang said there was no residual effects from the stroke and that he felt “totally normal” on the ice.
Letang kept things simple at the start of the game, but grew more confident with each shift. By the third period he was pinching deep into the offensive zone and carrying the puck on rushes toward the net.
“The first few shifts I was really nervous,” Letang said. “It went well. It’s a tough team to play against. They play a one-on-one game. It was fun to get some battles under my belt.”
Letang picked up his assist in the third period when he carried the puck up ice and made a move around Red Wings’ Luke Glendening. He snapped off a shot on goaltender Jonas Gustovasson. The puck squeaked through the pads and lay idle on the ice until Jussi Jokinen swooped in to score.
“I had a pressure guy, I faked it and had a lot of room (up ice),” Letang said. “I was just trying to shoot it and get a rebound.”
For Letang the game was the end of a long journey in his recovery. He took blood thinners for the first six weeks after the stroke and had been participating in full-contact practice for the past three-plus weeks, hoping to get a chance to play again.
And the crowd cheered him every stride of the way, whether it was his appearance at warmups, the announcement of his name in the starting lineup, his assist and a final round of applause of appreciation as he came out as the game’s No. 1 star.
“We always talk about Pittsburgh and how great the fans are,” Letang said. “The ovation was great. They were behind me through the injury and understanding me taking my time.
“I’m not going to look behind me. I’m going to look forward. I’m trying to make strides. Now I need to get the timing back and get into my role.”