PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang may be rejoining Sidney Crosby on the sidelines with a concussion for the second time this season.
Letang, a skilled two-way player who is a key to the Penguins’ much-improved power play, has concussion-like symptoms according to coach Dan Bylsma and will not play Saturday at Colorado.
Letang will be evaluated by concussion specialists next week in Pittsburgh, after the team returns from a two-game road trip that began with a 4-3 shootout win in Dallas on Wednesday.
“He did have symptoms today,” Bylsma said Thursday in Denver.
Losing Letang again — he was out with a concussion from Nov. 26-Jan. 19 — would be a major setback for the Penguins, who have played all but eight games this season without Crosby, arguably their best player and the NHL’s marquee star.
Crosby skated with the Penguins on Thursday, has not been cleared for contact and it is uncertain whether he will be healthy enough to return during the regular season. He hasn’t played since Dec. 5.
Seeing Letang on the ice again, in visible discomfort, tempered some of the Penguins’ enthusiasm after they won their fourth in a row.
Letang was checked into the end boards by Stars forward Vernon Fiddler as he went to play the puck behind the Pittsburgh net near the midpoint of the first period. After disengaging himself and turning to play the puck again, Letang was clipped hard in the head by forward Eric Nystrom’s right arm.
Letang crumpled to the ice, in visible discomfort.
“Certainly I’m concerned — for every player,” Bylsma said Thursday. “The significance of the hit, Kris being on the ice. That was the first thing I thought of (a concussion) in that situation for Kris. Whether you’ve had one or a couple before, you’re concerned for the player’s health. He took a hard hit.”
Nystrom was given a two-minute roughing penalty but apparently will not be fined or suspended.
The Letang hit resulted in a heated argument between former NHL coach Mike Milbury and former player Jeremy Roenick on the NBC Sports Network, which televised the game in the United States. While Milbury argued vehemently that Nystrom should be disciplined, Roenick defended Nystrom, saying he didn’t believe Letang was even hit in the head.
At one point, Milbury raised his arm to Roenick’s head to demonstrate how Letang was hit.
“You telling me you didn’t see his head snap?” a disbelieving Milbury said as the two went back and forth for several minutes, both of them repeatedly talking at the same time. “You didn’t see his head go back?”
“He put himself in a vulnerable position,” Roenick said.
Unlike the Nov. 26 game in Montreal in which Letang sustained a broken nose and a concussion while being levelled by the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty, Letang did not return to the game. In Montreal, Letang not only returned after being hit in the third period but scored the game-winning goal in overtime.
When Letang returns again, at least for now, is as uncertain as when Crosby will be back, especially if he has another concussion.
In part because of the strong seasons by Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer, and two-way centre Jordan Staal, the Penguins – 16-4-1 in their last 21 games — have proven to be remarkably resilient despite losing more than a dozen players to injuries that lasted more than a week. They are fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Letang has six goals and six assists and is a plus-2 in 18 games since returning from his concussion, and his strong play as a point man has helped the Penguins jump to 5th in power-play efficiency (21 per cent conversion rate). They were 25th a season ago.
For the season, Letang has nine goals and 22 assists for 31 points in 40 games, or as many points as perennial all-star Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings has in 62 games.
Forward Steve Sullivan also was hurt against Dallas – the Penguins have not revealed his injury – and might also miss the Colorado game, possibly leaving the Penguins without two point men.
Letang is expected to be replaced in the lineup by Ben Lovejoy and on the power play by Matt Niskanen. Defenceman Paul Martin would replace Sullivan on the power play.