It will take into next week and beyond for the Pittsburgh Penguins to know exactly what impact defenceman Kris Letang will be able to make two months after suffering a stroke.
On Wednesday night, in his first game since January, Letang showed glimpses of what he brings back to the Penguins, most notably creating open ice in the neutral zone and generating the rebound that led a goal by Jussi Jokinen.
“You couldn’t tell he has missed two and a half months,” Jokinen said.
After missing 26 games following a Jan. 29 stroke, Letang could. After helping beat the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 in a shootout, the 26-year-old was able to breathe and reflect on what he called a very emotional day.
“I felt pretty good. I had a lot of fun,” Letang said. “It was not fun structure-wise to me, but just glad and happy to be on the ice. Honestly, it’s something that I missed a lot and I was just glad to play with this bunch of guys.”
Letang hardly got eased back in Wednesday night, playing 22:30 seconds. That’s on the low end of his season totals, but it’s still quite impressive for anyone coming back from something as serious as a stroke.
Defence partner Rob Scuderi said Letang makes things look easy. Coach Dan Bylsma agreed.
“At one point in the game I looked at him and he didn’t have a drop of sweat on him,” Bylsma said. “He’s been out a couple months and he looked pretty darn good out there defending, defending against some good players, playing hard and made some good plays that made a difference in the game.”
Letang created Jokinen’s goal by carrying the puck over the red-line and shooting it on Detroit goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. It was a harmless shot that became a goal when Jokinen saw it on the ice behind Gustavsson and poked it in.
That was the tangible difference the Montreal native made in his first game back. Of course it was not as strong a game as he would have liked, and getting back to a consistent level could take time.
“There was some things that I felt good about, some things I have to get my timing back,” Letang said. “Hockey is a lot about timing, and I don’t know — maybe it’s going to take a week, maybe it’s going to take two weeks.”
It helps the Penguins that they have their full complement of defencemen healthy with the playoffs set to begin next week. Letang, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, is a big piece of that, but so are veterans Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Scuderi.
Getting Martin and Letang back, specifically, is something Bylsma figures will help Pittsburgh in the puck-possession department.
“Putting Paul Martin back in our lineup, almost immediately you can see how it changes things for our team in terms of being able to not spend time in the defensive zone, be able to exit the defensive zone with the puck,” Bylsma said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “And then Kris is very similar in that regard to Paul. It’s your ability to execute with the puck, leave the zone with the puck.”
Letang, who now has 10 goals and nine assists in 35 games this season, is a player who excels with the puck on his stick. More known for his offensive prowess than his defensive responsibilities, he could thrive if Bylsma continues to pair him with a stay-at-home player like Scuderi.
That’s where Letang spent time against the Red Wings, who certainly noticed him on the ice.
“It’s great to see him being healthy again and being able to play,” winger Daniel Alfredsson said. “I thought he was pretty solid, maybe not as active as he usually is up and down the rush, but a big part of their third goal. He’ll probably just get better as time goes on.”
That’s Letang’s hope as well. Wednesday gave him plenty of adrenalin and emotional energy that made him nervous for a few shifts before he settled down.
Feeling nerves was to be expected. Most importantly, afterward he felt “totally normal.”
The next step for Letang is regaining some confidence and moving past this absence with the playoffs on the horizon.
“I’m not really thinking about it,” he said. “I’m not a guy that looks behind, I’m always a guy that looks up in front of me and I’m trying to make strides. Now it’s going to get the timing back and trying to get into my role.”