Thursday, January 26, 2012

Letang's return has been a welcome one for streaking Penguins

ST. LOUIS — Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had planned to restrict defenseman Kris Letang's ice time when the All-Star returned after a seven-week absence with a concussion.

Then, Bylsma and center Sidney Crosby watched Letang skate under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar.

"We both were shaking our heads about how easy it looks for (Letang) and how well he can skate," Bylsma said.

Letang doesn't necessarily make the game look easy, but he has made his return look routine. And Bylsma hasn't hesitated to use him.

"I knew he was in good condition and skating really well, so it's not real surprising," Bylsma said. "But it is surprising that he maybe hasn't missed too much of a beat with the significant number of games he did miss."

When Letang returned last week against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Penguins had won three in a row. They probably wouldn't be riding a seven-game winning streak now if not for Letang.

He has scored twice and made one of the defensive plays of the season: catching Montreal's Tomas Plekanec from behind on a breakaway. That he recently missed 21 games is almost forgotten.

"I'm impressed but not surprised," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "He's in great shape. He's probably the best athlete on our team, and he really worked hard to get back."

Letang's conditioning always has been impressive. Like former Penguins defenseman Sergei Zubov, Letang never looks tired, but his ability to play without evidence of rust has particularly impressed teammates.

"He's played better than we expected," defense partner Brooks Orpik said. "He's just such a talented kid."

Letang won't get a week off like most of his teammates since he was selected to play in Sunday's All-Star Game in Ottawa. Missing two months didn't diminish the fact that he has emerged as a star.

His return has been especially beneficial considering Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek are playing below expectations. Bylsma has relied heavily upon the pairing of Letang and Orpik, as evidenced by Letang's average of 26 minutes per game since he returned.

"We're used to playing together, and we're comfortable right now," Orpik said. "He keeps himself in really good shape. ... He's been really good."

Letang has taken a more modest approach to his play. He's cognizant of his role in St. Louis' Patrik Berglund being awarded (and converting) a penalty shot in Tuesday's victory and that he's 0 for 2 in shootout attempts since returning.

"I need to get better everywhere," he said.


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