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Defenseman Letang close to returning with Penguins

Defenseman Kris Letang could be back in the Penguins' lineup sooner than expected.

General manager Ray Shero confirmed Monday that Letang has been cleared for contact and game action.

Letang will not play Tuesday night when the Penguins host Carolina, but he could be back within the next week. He will skate with the Penguins during their morning skate Tuesday.

"Once he feels ready," Shero said, "he'll play. He's been cleared for practice. Kris is doing really well."

The defenseman has not played since absorbing a hit from Montreal's Max Pacioretty on Nov. 26. Letang, whose nose was broken by the hit, returned in that game and scored the game-winner in overtime. He was diagnosed with a concussion a week later.

Pacioretty was suspended three games for violating Rule 48, which prohibits direct contact to a player's head.

"We're all looking forward to having him back," Shero said. "He's grown into one of the really good, young defensemen in our game. We have missed him very much."

Letang had 19 points in 22 games before being injured.

Although the Penguins have almost a week off during the all-star break later this month, Shero said the team will not force Letang to wait until after the break, even though it would give him a few more days to prepare for his return.

"The break isn't that long anyway," Shero said. "He's cleared to play, so we're going to have him out there when he feels like he can go, whenever that is."

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