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Penguins

Kris Letang day-to-day as Penguins breathe sigh of relief

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, 5:36 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang out on the ice after morning skate before 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday, June 11 , 2017 at Bridgestone Arena.

When Kris Letang hobbled to the locker room late in Friday night’s game, the Pittsburgh Penguins might have seen their season flash before their eyes.

As it turns out, they probably won’t be without their most important defenseman for that long.

Letang didn’t play against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, but his status is considered day-to-day, coach Mike Sullivan said.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Sullivan said. “We’ll take each day as it comes. We believe we have capable people we can put in the lineup. We have enough to win. It’s going to provide opportunities for other guys to step up and play more significant roles. Guys gotta take advantage of those opportunities.”

Letang was injured when his left leg bent awkwardly as he skated into hunched-over Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom late in the third period.

Letang is having an excellent season, ranking third in the league in average ice time at 25 minutes, 55 seconds and eighth in defenseman scoring with seven goals and 25 points in 30 games.

Replacing Letang on a long-term basis would have been extraordinarily difficult. It would have required thrusting their current defensemen into new, expanded roles for which they might not be suited or diving into the ultra-expensive trade market for No. 1 defensemen.

Replacing Letang on a short-term basis will be hard enough, especially because Saturday night’s meeting with the Kings started a stretch of five games in eight days for the Penguins, whose spot on the fringes of Eastern Conference playoff contention dictates they can’t afford another protracted losing streak.

The greatest challenge probably will be replacing Letang on the breakout, where he excels and the rest of the defense corps has struggled at times this season.

“It’s no different whether Tanger’s in the lineup or he isn’t. We’ve just got to help each other,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to get back to pucks. I think our forwards have to get back in a hurry. We’ve got to offer quicker, closer support. We’ve got to work together to get out of our end.”

Hard left turn

Juuso Riikola took Letang’s spot in the lineup against the Kings, playing with Brian Dumoulin.

Riikola, a training camp standout who posted one assist and a minus-1 rating in his first 14 games in the lineup, was making his first appearance since Dec. 1. Chad Ruhwedel was scratched.

With Letang and Justin Schultz out and Riikola in, all six defensemen the Penguins dressed are left-handed, which is far from an ideal scenario.

“We have guys that are comfortable playing the off side and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said. “That’s part of the challenge. But we do have guys that have a comfort level playing there. We’ll have to try to put combinations together that we think are complementary that can help us. It is what it is. It’s hard to change.”

Injury report

Winger Carl Hagelin’s first game against the team with which he won two Stanley Cup championships will have to wait.

Hagelin sprained his ACL five games after being traded to the Kings for winger Tanner Pearson last month. His four-to-six week recovery estimate might put him back in the lineup by the time the Penguins visit the Kings on Jan. 12.

Patric Hornqvist (day to day with an upper-body injury) and Dominik Simon (week to week with a lower-body injury) have not yet resumed skating.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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