Kris Letang speaks with the media late last month. Letang, who had a stroke in late January, returned to practice Monday.
Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kris Letang celebrates his goal in a game against the Capitals in January.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury summed up Monday’s Penguins practice at Consol Energy Center this way:
“A good vibe.”
It wasn’t just that the team was turning the page on a weekend in which it got swept in a home-and-home series with rival Philadelphia. More important, there were some welcome faces at practice.
Defenseman Kris Letang, who had a stroke in late January, returned to practice. So did winger James Neal, who got a concussion last week, and winger Chris Kunitz, who collided legs-first with a goal post last week.
Winger Beau Bennett, who has been dealing with wrist surgery and a subsequent setback, had been skating at times with his teammates but for Monday got clearance for full contact — as did Letang, Kunitz and Neal.
Kunitz — who skated for 10 minutes before practice, then returned for the main session — and Neal could be available to play as early as tonight, when the Dallas Stars visit Consol Energy Center, and Bennett could be ready to return after a few more practices.
But the most intriguing story belonged to Letang.
He had several medical tests last week, and the results were encouraging enough that he was allowed to stop taking blood-thinning medication and was cleared for full practice. His goal is to play again — this season, if possible.
“There was no doubt in my mind,” Letang said. “Even the day I got the stroke [Jan. 29], I asked the doctor when I’m going to be able to play again. There’s no doubt about it — if I’m on the ice, it’s because I want to return.”
Letang not only was cleared for contact but craved it.
“Guys were kind of being really careful anytime we were going in the corner,” he said. “I told them they can go as hard as they can.”
After most of their teammates retreated to the locker room, Letang, Neal and Bennett remained on the ice and went through battle drills.
Letang said he has been skating and working out “at a pretty high pace.”
Coach Dan Bylsma noticed some carryover to practice.
“We did a drill, and I’m offering pseudo resistance,” Bylsma said. “To see Kris Letang coming at you with that speed, I was like, wow.”
Letang said the post-stroke symptoms he had have cleared. It’s not known what caused his stroke. A small hole was discovered in his heart, but he said that’s not necessarily the cause and is a back-burner issue for now.
He does not live in fear of another stroke.
“I was not worried when it happened. It never crossed my mind I could have a stroke at 26,” he said. “But if I’m worried that if I step out [on the ice] it’s going to happen, who knows? But I’m not going to worry about that.”
Bylsma allowed himself to look past any fear for Letang and instead watch the marvel of a player who last season was a finalist for the Norris Tropy as the NHL’s top defenseman.
“To see him back out there and skating and playing like he can, that’s where my mind was, not with any kind of trepidation about [his health],” Bylsma said, but he’s also not getting his hopes up over when Letang might play.
“There’s no indication of when a return to play is even possible,” Bylsma said. “I don’t want to add to any speculation. We could see him [practice] for two months, and he might not return to play. However, he was one of the best skaters on the ice, if not the best skater on the ice. He can fly. He’s got that power. He had a battle in the corner with Beau Bennett, and he looks every bit of one of the best guys down low in the corner. He looked really good.”
Bennett and Neal reported feeling good, too.
Neal, a fixture on the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin, was diagnosed with a concussion Thursday. That injury can be short- or long-term, but he quickly was symptom-free.
“I just wasn’t feeling right from a hit,” Neal said, declining to say when the hit happened or name the perpetrator. “Sometimes it’s tough to tell. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you right away. I felt a little weird, got it checked out and needed a couple of days. I’m feeling better now.
“If I feel good [this] morning, no reason why I can’t keep going [and play tonight].”
Bennett, who has not played since Nov. 22, described his frustration level this season as “high. It’s really high.”
Bennett had surgery on his other wrist while at Denver University, but he doesn’t see a connection between the two injuries or a reason to think he could be vulnerable to such injuries moving ahead.
“The first wrist injury, I got stepped on by a hockey skate,” he said. “This wrist injury was extremely fluky. [The public] doesn’t really know the extent of it, and you probably never will know.”
Even with Letang, Neal, Bennett and Kunitz at practice, there still wasn’t complete attendance.
Five of the team’s recent Olympians — forwards Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Jussi Jokinen, and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Olli Maatta — were given the day off.
Defenseman Paul Martin, who came back from the Olympics with a broken right hand that required surgery, skated for a half-hour before practice in full gear. He had what appeared to be extra padding in his right glove but was stickhandling and shooting pucks.
When Bylsma met with reporters after the practice, he was holding a cheat sheet to make sure he remembered all the comings and goings among his players.
He didn’t need any written reminders when asked whether the team gets a boost from such an influx of players at practice.
“I do,” he bellowed. “It’s good to see them all on the ice and getting healthy and closer to returning.”
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