Penguins Notebook: Letang conditioned to be a marathon man on skates

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Defenseman Kris Letang played 23 minutes, 20 seconds Saturday night. Took a couple of shots. Blocked one by Buffalo.

That's a slow night at the office for Letang this season.

His ice time in the Penguins' 3-2 loss to the Sabres dropped his average to 26:26, still highest on his team and among the leaders in the NHL. He is averaging 27.5 shifts per contest.

"I think every player wants to spend the most minutes [he can] on the ice," Letang said. "It's always rewarding that your coach likes to put you out there.

"I put a lot of emphasis on having good [cardiovascular health] and being able to go for a long time."

Letang, 24, who undergoes a torturous offseason workout regimen, averaged 24:02 of ice time and 25.5 shifts a game last season, when he was a Norris Trophy candidate.

His elevated numbers early this season are all the more noteworthy because the Penguins have a jam-packed schedule this month, having already played six games in the first 11 days with consecutive games tonight at Winnipeg and Tuesday at Minnesota.

"It's a lot, but sometimes there are situations in a game where you don't get as tired as some other games," Letang said. "Some games I'm going to play 23 minutes and I'm going to be really tired. Some games I'm going to play 28 minutes and not feel as tired.

"I'm working hard to be able to play a lot."

His extra ice time so far hasn't diminished his other numbers.

He has a goal and five assists, giving him a share of the lead among NHL defensemen with six points after Saturday's games. He leads the team with 11 blocked shots and is tied for the team lead with 12 hits. He has a plus-minus rating of plus-3.

Malkin, 3 others stay home

Injured players Evgeni Malkin (knee), Sidney Crosby (concussion), Brooks Orpik (abdomen) and Dustin Jeffrey (knee) did not accompany the Penguins on the two-game road trip.

That means Malkin will miss the next two games because of recurring soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. He has missed three of the past four games. The other three players have not played this season.

Neal's fresh start

After he was acquired from Dallas in a late-February trade, winger James Neal spent a fair amount of time trying to explain why his production was stalled. He had one regular-season goal and one postseason goal in 27 games.

How things have flipped.

Now Neal repeatedly is asked about his sizzling start.

"It's everything," Neal said after scoring his fifth goal Saturday. "Like I keep saying, coming in with a fresh start, going through camp makes a big difference. I had a good summer. I'm shooting the puck well, playing with some good players."

Neal has a three-game goal streak and was tied for the league lead in goals before Sunday.

Against Buffalo, he even got an unconventional assist, one that doesn't show up on the score sheet. His shot from the left half-wall was inadvertently deflected in by the Sabres' Robyn Regehr.

"Putting pucks on the net when things are going good, you get bounces like that," Neal said.

Tough stretch

The Penguins canceled practice Sunday before their flight to Winnipeg and have a scheduled day off Wednesday. That will be their fourth day off this month, with two more scheduled.

With 13 games in 24 days to start the season, the club is trying to manage its energy level as best as possible while still spending some time on game preparation.

The players don't want to hear suggestions that fatigue, mental or physical, is catching up with them, even though they are 0-1-1 in their past two games after starting 3-0-1.

"You can always blame it on being tired, but we had a long summer of rest and training," Neal said.

"It's early in the year. We should be fresh no matter what. I don't think that's a problem. We do feel good. It's just executing our systems and our passes."

In Buffalo, the Penguins faced a club that had played the night before and opened the season in Europe.

"I don't think in any way, shape or form being tired is factoring in the equation, or how many games we're playing," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

"We've had rest, and we should [have been] the fresher team in that regard [Saturday] considering the opponent."


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