Injured Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang and winger Bryan Rust practiced with the team Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Neither wore a non-contact jersey. Although there is no official update, it seems at least possible that one or both could return this weekend. The Penguins host St. Louis in a Saturday afternoon game, then Philadelphia visits Sunday night.
Letang got hurt Feb. 23. He seemed on track to returning and was practicing in a non-contact jersey before an illness set in for a short time. He did not travel to Buffalo but skated Thursday in Pittsburgh instead.
“I got sick during the time I was injured, but it was nothing crazy,” Letang said. “Today I was able to be more a part of it and get a little contact with guys.”
Letang said while he’s unsure of his status for the weekend, the skating he’s been doing has been beneficial.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “I’ve been skating forever, so my conditioning is there, that’s for sure.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Rust and Letang, “We’ll see how they respond. Right now their status is the same, day to day,” but he added that neither has been ruled out for the weekend.
Rust got what the team has called a lower-body injury Feb. 26 at Columbus. He took the morning skate Thursday in Buffalo wearing a red, no-contact jersey.
It has surprised Rust that he has responded this quickly. He was described as being out longer term when he got hurt.
“A little bit faster than I expected,” he said. “When I first got injured, it didn’t feel very great then. It’s something I’m taking day by day now, and hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.
“I think everybody thought it was worse, so I was fortunate in that sense.”
While no one was predicting whether he will play this weekend, Rust noted that “I feel strong. I feel good. I don’t feel like I’m favoring anything. So I think that’s a good sign.”
While Letang almost assuredly will reunite with his regular defense partner, Brian Dumoulin, with fill-in Zach Trotman yielding that spot, where Rust will slot in when he gets back in the lineup is a bigger question.
The speedy winger, who has 17 goals, 31 points in 62 games, has had some success on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, but lately that line has been on fire with Jared McCann on the wing.
In the eight games Rust has missed, Crosby has six goals, 15 points; Guentzel, seven goals, 12 points; and McCann four goals, eight points, although McCann has spent briefs amounts of time off that line.
Sullivan said reconfiguring lines and combinations and lineups as players get healthy – defenseman Olli Maatta continues to skate before practice, for instance – isn’t necessarily a problem, even a good problem.
“I wouldn’t consider that a problem; it’s a challenge,” Sullivan said. “But it’s a good one to have. It means that we’ve got a real capable group of players here. The guys that have been in the lineup have done a terrific job, but obviously these guys that are coming back are important players for our team. So the coaching staff will have some difficult decisions, but we’ll try to do what’s best for the team.”
Letang has been mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate. He ranks seventh in the NHL among defensemen with 53 points, tied for second with 15 goals. He ranks fifth on the team in points.
The Penguins are 7-1-1 since he got hurt, but team captain Sidney Crosby said that hardly diminishes Letang’s value.
“He plays every situation for us,” Crosby said. “It’s good to see him out there (at practice) with us. That’s always a big step.”
Crosby noted that injuries “kind of came in bunches, so it would be great to get guys back.”