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Penguins' Letang cleared for full practice 6-plus weeks after stroke

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 3:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang skates against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 22, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins Kris Letang play against the Canadiens on Jan. 22, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Kris Letang had hope.

Now, maybe, so do the injury-plagued Penguins.

Letang will practice Monday — six and a half weeks after taking a stroke — and he is cleared for full participation, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday.

Letang no longer is on blood-thinning medication, but there is no time frame for his return to games, Bylsma said.

“We had an idea that at this point in time, he could possibly be cleared to practice,” Bylsma said. “He still has some other things to go through, but we knew this was the six-week mark, and there was a chance.

“It's not a complete surprise.”

But it is a pleasant one.

Letang, who was not available for comment, had his stroke Jan. 28. In a statement released Feb. 7, the Penguins reported Letang would require blood-thinning medication for at least six weeks and then undergo re-evaluation by team physicians.

At the time, members of the organization and close friends of Letang said they did not expect him to play again this season — a sentiment echoed by his Penguins teammates in recent weeks.

Letang said Feb. 27 that he hoped to — but was not sure — if he would return this season. A day later, Letang took the ice for the first time since the stroke to casually skate with his son and wife on the outdoor rink at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Letang told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday that he had regained weight lost during his initial post-stroke period of inactivity. Also, he resumed skating on his own before practices, including while wearing full gear at Southpointe Iceoplex on Friday morning.

“I don't think anything should be surmised by that,” Bylsma said Saturday, noting Letang practiced at Los Angeles a day after his stroke.

Letang is reputable for his off-ice conditioning. He allows himself only one day each year to drink alcohol and works in the offseason with Jonathan Chaimberg, who trains Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial artists.

Given his age, 26, and healthy lifestyle, Letang said he was jarred by the stroke diagnosis. NHL teams are not obligated to reveal specifics about players' heath, but Letang asked the Penguins to make his condition public to raise awareness.

In the Feb. 7 statement, the Penguins reported that Letang was born with a small hole in his heart that did not close, a rare birth defect. Team physicians have not pinpointed the cause for his stroke, Bylsma said Sunday.

Letang missed his 14th consecutive game in the Penguins' 4-3 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday at Consol Energy Center. They are 7-5-2 on this stint without Letang, who previously missed nine games (strained right knee) and another 10 (infected right elbow).

Despite playing in only 34 games, Letang is tied for the team lead in goals among defensemen with 10.

Though not performing at his level from last season, when he paced league defensemen in points per game and was a first-time finalist for the Norris Trophy, Letang's latest absence has proven problematic for the Penguins.

He and Paul Martin, out nine consecutive contests (broken right hand) together, are the only two defensemen to average at least 25 minutes of ice time. They have split time as the power-play quarterback, and Bylsma makes sure that either Letang or Martin is on the ice to play at even strength with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Since the NHL Olympic break ended, the Penguins are minus-72 in shot differential in nine games, and neither Crosby nor Malkin have played much with the puck on their respective sticks.

“One of the things we want to do well and do effectively is play in the offensive zone,” Bylsma said.

“We've got to get better coming out of the defensive-zone with the puck. (Opponents) have hunted too many pucks down and turned too many in to the offensive zone. (The Flyers) did that on three or four occasions, and that prolonged time in the offensive zone for their team.”

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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