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Penguins notebook: Kris Letang returns, feels 'a lot better'

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, 7:32 p.m.
The Penguins' Kris Letang checks the Flyers' Michael Raffl during the second period Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Philadelphia.
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The Penguins' Kris Letang checks the Flyers' Michael Raffl during the second period Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Philadelphia.
The Penguins' Kris Letang scores over Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky during the shootout Dec. 21, 2017.
The Penguins' Kris Letang scores over Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky during the shootout Dec. 21, 2017.
Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry has an injury checked during the second period against the Flyers on Tuesday.
Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry has an injury checked during the second period against the Flyers on Tuesday.

PHILADELPHIA — There are few things that could help the Penguins make a second-half surge this season more than a return to form for Kris Letang.

The 30-year-old defenseman was back in the lineup Tuesday night in Philadelphia after missing the previous three games with a lower-body injury.

Coming off April neck surgery, Letang said he feels better physically now than he did at the start of the season.

“Honestly, the beginning of the year, I was struggling on back-to-backs, obviously, because I didn't play for a long time,” Letang said. “The game shape was not quite there. But I feel a lot better now.”

Letang has had an up-and-down season, ranking near the top of the league in defenseman scoring and near the bottom in plus-minus rating.

In the game he got hurt, Letang had an early turnover that sparked Anaheim to a 4-0 win. Letang expressed confidence, however, that his game is close to where he wants it to be.

“My last game was not the game I wanted, but I think I was making a lot of strides in the right direction previously,” Letang said. “We'll keep working on it and try to improve our game.”

Justin Schultz also made his return Tuesday, coming back from a lower-body injury that kept him out since Dec. 5.

The presence of Letang and Schultz give the Penguins a much more offensively oriented group on the blue line.

“When they're not in our lineup, it's fairly evident we don't come out of our end zone as clean,” Sullivan said. “We don't have the puck tape-to-tape as often. That's what these guys bring to our team. They see the ice really well. They're both mobile guys. They can get back to pucks quickly.”

Fresh legs

Given the long playoff runs the Penguins have gone on the past two seasons, it might seem logical for players coming back from injuries to see the obvious bright side.

Time without the physical grind of game action, whether for a week or a month, could help alleviate some fatigue issues.

Schultz, however, said it's hard to think that way.

“It doesn't matter,” he said. “You want to be out there with the guys and with them at all times.”

Goalie decision

When Tristan Jarry got the nod in net Tuesday night, it was a mild surprise. That's because it was the first time this season Murray did not start when he was healthy and the Penguins weren't in the middle of a set of games on back-to-back days.

Murray was coming off a 19-save performance in a 4-1 loss at Detroit on Sunday night. Jarry was coming off a 31-save showing in a 2-1 loss at Carolina on Friday.

“We thought (Jarry's) last start was very strong. He's played some really good games for us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “And I think it gives Matt an opportunity to spend time with (goalie coach Mike Buckley) and just reset his mindset, get back to some of the basics of his game that we think are important that helps him be at his best. But certainly, this is all just part of the process.”

Sprong's reunion

Tuesday night's game was a reunion for 20-year-old winger Daniel Sprong, who played with Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov on a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights bantam team that won a national championship in 2012.

“He was a really good defenseman,” Sprong recalled. “At that age, he was already a big boy and a great skater. You could see he had NHL all over him.”

Penn State standouts Denis Smirnov, a Colorado draft pick, and Nikita Pavlychev, a Penguins prospect, also were on the team.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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