PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Kris Letang darted down the Consol Energy Center ice, the defenceman’s black hair flicking out from underneath his helmet.
Everything looked in place. The speed. The agility. The slick stickwork.
Yet for as polished as Letang appeared during his first workout alongside his teammates in nearly two months on Monday, the 26-year-old remains uncertain when he’ll be able to pull his No. 58 sweater over his head and suit up in an actual game.
Consider it part of the fallout from the scariest moment of Letang’s life.
Seven weeks after a stroke blindsided him, Letang remains optimistic he will play again this season but too cautious to throw out a date.
“I was on the ice today because I want to return,” Letang said. “I’ll be able to play again. I don’t know when.”
Neither does his coach. Dan Bylsma pointed out that unlike defenceman Paul Martin—who remains sidelined with a right hand problem—concrete signs of progress for Letang are tougher to glean. Throwing an arbitrary timeline out there wouldn’t do any good because things can change in an instant.
“There’s no date to be determined for Kris,” Bylsma said. “Right now he’s back in a full practice. That’s a good thing.”
One the Penguins hope will send a bit of a jolt through a constantly churning lineup that has stagnated in Letang’s absence.
The Penguins are just 7-5-2 since Letang fell ill on Jan. 28 and while their spot atop the Metropolitan Division remains secure, they have ceded the top spot in the Eastern Conference to the Boston Bruins.
The slide includes a home-and-home sweep by Philadelphia over the weekend in which Pittsburgh was dominated for the first four periods before salvaging some dignity in the final 40 minutes of a 4-3 loss on Sunday.
Not exactly the best way to build momentum heading into the last month of an interminable regular season.
Though the Penguins have lost an NHL-high 413 man games to injury this season, they are trying to avoid excuses.
They steamrolled through the first four months of the season before falling since Letang’s third trip to the injured list. They can play well even as Bylsma plays mix-and-match with his lines.
“I think now with the amount of time left in the season it’s about rounding our game into form for the post-season,” defenceman Rob Scuderi said. “It’s something you can’t flip a switch overnight. You always want wins, but I’d be OK if we’d play the right way.”
Having some familiar faces around would help. Letang wasn’t the only player back on the ice Monday.
Forward James Neal (concussion) practiced, as did wingers Chris Kunitz (lower body) and Beau Bennett (wrist).
That’s plenty of additional firepower for a team that already has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, though the duo has played with limited effectiveness recently while skating without familiar faces by their side.
Neal and Bennett likely won’t be available until later in the week, though Kunitz has a chance to play on Tuesday night when the Penguins host Dallas.
The 34-year-old is tied with Crosby with a team-high 31 goals, and his ability to make something happen in front of the net was missed as Pittsburgh found itself dominated by the Flyers over the weekend.
Still, Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup playoff chances could rest on Letang’s health. One of the fittest players in a league of fit players admits he’s still stunned by his stroke diagnosis.
Doctors said there was a “0.01 chance” of Letang suffering a stroke, odds so slim Letang refuses to say he’s in the clear from it happening again.
Letang would rather not talk about it. He’d rather just focus on skating and getting himself ready for whenever doctors give him the go-ahead to play. He confessed to being tired, but not overwhelmed during a spirited 60 minutes on the ice.
At one point he could sense his teammates taking it easy on him. He ordered them to get back to work.
“Guys were being really careful when we’d go into the corner,” Letang said. “I told them they can go as hard as they can. That’s the main reason why I’m out there. I want to get to the same place I was before.”
A place that makes Letang one of the best at his position when healthy. A Norris Trophy finalist a year ago, Letang has 10 goals and eight assists in 34 games this season, though his general presence is missed as much as his production.
The feeling is mutual. Letang understands the fixation on his return. Trust him, he’s just as concerned as everybody else.
“Even the day I had the stroke I asked the doctor when I would be able to play again,” Letang said. “It never crossed my mind that I could have a stroke at 26. It could (happen again) because it happened once. Who knows? I’m not going to worry about that.”