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Knee, elbow injuries have stalled start for Penguins' Letang

| Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, 10:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang (58) plays againt the Devils on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang plays againt the Devils Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.

Kris Letang could see it.

His game — fluid skating, own-zone physicality, sharp passes, quick shots — started to look like it should, then he landed awkwardly on his left elbow Dec. 13 at Consol Energy Center.

He has not played since, a stretch that could extend to a 10th game Friday night, and Letang knows that the second half of this season is basically a do-over.

“You try to build something, but you just keep going backward,” Letang said Thursday after his first practice with the Penguins since his latest injury.

Letang has played in only 24 games. A right-knee injury at the end of training camp cost him the Penguins' opening nine contests.

He has scored six goals, a pace for a career-best 21 over a full season.

However, he also has totaled only 11 points, a full-season pace for 38 — or as many as he scored in 35 games last season, when he was a first-time finalist for the Norris Trophy (top defenseman).

The Penguins are running away from their Metropolitan Division competition with a 14-point lead, and they went 5-1-0 on a recent run without each of their top-four defensemen.

They do not view Letang as a luxury, though.

He is seen as a piece that can put them over the top — one that has been missing, at least in form, much of this season.

“I'm not sure (he has) totally got 100 percent comfortable on the ice,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Missing the first (nine) games of the season is a big chunk to miss, the first (nine) in particular. Stepping back in, even with his skating ability, you'd like him to be an All-Star right off the hop, but I think he wasn't quite comfortable for a while in the first part of those games.

“We saw him start to get back to that before being injured again.”

Letang said his five games prior to this latest injury were his best in terms of consistency in all three zones. He hoped to build on that, but his left elbow became infected and required surgery and a cast.

The infection and cast are gone, and Letang said Thursday he felt well after full practice participation, including working in on the first-team power play.

His only real objective for the second half is to continue finding how his style best meshes with the Penguins' new defensive system that has limited his opportunity to lead rushes, a strength of his game.

Also, he has played less than three full periods with Rob Scuderi, who was signed over the summer to pair with Letang as the team's top defensive tandem.

Bylsma has said he will pair Letang and Scuderi at first opportunity, as he envisions that and the Brooks Orpik-Paul Martin tandem as the defensive foundation for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Letang, who said watching games from the media level has helped him better understand the defensive scheme, is hoping some health luck finds him over the next six months.

He has not played a full season since 2010-11, losing time to pulled groins, concussions, strained knees and infected elbows.

When healthy, Letang is a difference-making defenseman, Bylsma said.

Letang knows he must be for the Penguins to go beyond where last season ended: the Eastern Conference final, where Letang did not record a point in four straight losses.

“I'm the player that I am,” Letang said. “It's just a question of staying healthy and racking up some games.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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