Ron Cook: Penguins face yet another setback



The news brought back memories, horrible memories.

"It's never good to have cancer," Mario Lemieux said in January 1993.

That was my first thought when the Penguins announced Friday that star defenseman Kris Letang had a stroke last week. Lemieux was 27 and on top of the hockey world when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Letang is 26 and might just be the Penguins' most well-conditioned player.

Bad health things aren't supposed to happen to young athletes.

Lemieux missed nearly two months of the 1992-93 season. On the morning of his final radiation treatment, he took a flight to Philadelphia and played that night against the Flyers, earning a standing ovation from the notoriously obnoxious Philadelphia fans. He had a goal and an assist in that game and, almost unbelievably, went on to win the NHL scoring title, although he couldn't lead the Penguins to a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

Penguins officials said Letang will miss at least six weeks, although they will be thrilled if he gets his health back and can play next season. There are no guarantees. That's true not just for Letang, but for all of us.

Does it seem at times that the Penguins are cursed, or what?

Phenom Michel Briere was killed at 21 in a car accident in 1971. Forward Stan Gilbertson had to have a leg amputated after crashing his Jeep in Rostraver in 1977. General manager Baz Bastien died when his car collided with a motorcycle on Parkway West in 1983. Coach Badger Bob Johnson died of brain cancer in 1991, just a few months after leading the franchise to its first Stanley Cup. Goaltender Tom Barrasso had to leave the Penguins in 1989 after his young daughter Ashley was diagnosed with cancer. Lemieux had multiple back surgeries, chronic back pain and a major heart scare that ended his career for good early in 2006. Star Sidney Crosby missed much of two consecutive seasons with a concussion and a neck injury, then missed the final 12 games and first playoff game last season after having the rotten luck of having his jaw broken by a puck that was shot by teammate Brooks Orpik.

The Penguins endured all of it, not to mention two bankruptcies and a couple of near-relocations. They haven't just survived, they have thrived. They won the Cup in 1991, 1992 and 2009. They have played in front of 314 consecutive home sellouts, including Friday night when they played the New York Rangers. They might just be the NHL's best-run and most stable franchise.

The Penguins have a big shot to win another Cup this summer. They are sitting pretty as the NHL season hits the nearly three-week Olympic break. They went into Friday night with a 17-point lead on the Rangers in the Metropolitan Division and a six-point lead on the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference. Their 40 wins were tied with the Anaheim Ducks for most in the league.

So far, this has been one of the more remarkable seasons in Penguins history.

Letang's illness is the latest challenge in a season filled with challenges that began before the first game when backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun was diagnosed with a blood clot. Vokoun has yet to play, although he is skating. Letang missed the first nine games with a lower-body injury. Big-time goal-scorer James Neal missed virtually all of the first 16 games with an upper-body injury. Later, defensemen Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin, Orpik and Letang again would miss 29, 23, 8 and 10 games. The team played much of December without its top four defensemen. It had to play without the suspended Neal for five games in December and has been without first-line winger Pascal Dupuis since Dec. 23 because of a knee injury that almost certainly will keep him out until next season.

I could point out that Evgeni Malkin has missed nine games, Tanner Glass 15, Beau Bennett the past 35 and Joe Vitale the past 12, but that would be overkill.

It's hard to say what is more staggering: The Penguins' man-games lost total of 351 or their huge lead in the Metropolitan Division.

The Penguins are thankful Crosby has played in all 58 games and led the NHL in scoring at 77 points going into Friday night. They are thankful goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had a league-leading 31 wins. They are thankful Chris Kunitz played in every game and had a career-best 27 goals. They are thankful defenseman Matt Niskanen played in every game and led the league with a plus-28. They are thankful winger Jussi Jokinen had played in every game and produced 16 goals and 41 points.

Now, there is Letang's major health scare to overcome.

It's silly to try to minimize Letang's absence. There was speculation last month that the Penguins should trade him because he wasn't having a good season, but that was nonsense. Few players in the world have his skills as an offensive defenseman. No player will replace him.

But if any team is built to endure Letang's absence, it's the Penguins. The guess here is they will show up to resume the season Feb. 27 against the Montreal Canadiens at Consol Energy Center. They had a 23-4 record at home going into Friday.

These Penguins won't just survive, they'll continue to thrive.

It's what the franchise does.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published February 7, 2014 11:37 PM

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