NEW YORK -- Kris Letang sat out 21 games while recovering from a concussion.
It wasn't easy, especially when his teammates were struggling, but Letang realized that neither he nor the Penguins would benefit if he tried to come back too quickly.
"You need your head for the rest of your life," he said Thursday. "It was just a question of feeling good and being confident I can do the job out there."
Letang, one of the NHL's top defensemen, returned to the lineup a few hours later when the Penguins faced the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
That meant the Penguins had their top two four defensemen in uniform for just the sixth game this season and first since Letang and Zbynek Michalek got concussions in a 4-3 overtime victory Nov. 26 in Montreal.
"It's good to have your top four defensemen back on the ice, that's for sure," coach Dan Bylsma said.
Letang began the evening averaging a team-high 26:10 of ice time, and there was little said to suggest his workload would be reduced significantly.
"I think it certainly is a situation where you're not looking to get him too many minutes, but I still think he's going to be used in a top-four role and against other good players and on the power play, so he is going to play a fair amount of minutes," Bylsma said.
Although Letang's extended layoff figured to leave at least a thin coat of rust on his game, he insisted he couldn't predict the part most likely to be affected.
"I have no clue, honestly," Letang said. Laughing, he added, "It's the first time I've experienced a long-term injury like that, so I'm looking forward to seeing what goes wrong."
His defense partner. Brooks Orpik , predicted that Letang might need a little time to get settled in, but not necessarily all that much.
"It will probably take him a little bit," Orpik said. "But he's a guy who's so talented; hopefully, that comes pretty quick for him."
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin entered the Rangers game tied with Henrik Sedin of Vancouver for first place in the NHL scoring race and seems to be turning up in more and more conversations about serious contenders for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league's MVP.
Anyone seeking a dissenting opinion probably shouldn't look for it in the Penguins locker room.
"He's been maybe the best player in the league, most dominant player in the league, and he's buoyed our team when we've gone through a bunch of injuries," Bylsma said.
Indeed, Malkin has been good most of the season, but has done some of his best work since centers Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Jordan Staal (knee) have been out of the lineup. Before facing New York, he had seven goals and two assists in the previous six games.
"For some reason, he enjoys being the go-to guy when Sid and [Staal] are out," Orpik said. "He kind of elevates his game.
"I don't know if he puts more pressure on himself or maybe he gets more ice time, gets the puck more, but this is the best he's played in a long time."
The Penguins got one concussion victim, Letang, back Thursday, but have lost another player because of a similar problem.
Bylsma said that right winger Arron Asham , who began to feel ill in the Penguins' 6-3 victory Sunday in Tampa, has shown concussion-like symptoms and is being treated for them.
Asham is the sixth Penguin to get a concussion this season.
Bylsma added that Crosby has remained in Atlanta, where he has been consulting with concussion specialist Ted Carrick this week and that Crosby's situation remains unchanged.
The Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre will play its 1,000th game tonight when Manchester visits Mohegan Sun Arena.
Reports from there said the Baby Penguins, who entered the AHL in 1999, will join Providence as the only teams in league history to play 1,000 consecutive games without changing their nickname or NHL affiliation.