4 Key Skaters Return to Practice for the Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s been a tough few days for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Losing two straight games to their in-state rivals is never easy, but considering they were missing a handful of key players made it that much more frustrating for the players and the fans. Maybe it was the luck of the Irish, but on St. Patrick’s Day four, count ‘em, four key skaters returned from injury and took the ice for the Penguins’ practice. James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Beau Bennett all have been cleared to practice, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Penguins’ offense has been a mess without Neal or Kunitz, and their power play, which is still somehow ranked No. 1 in the NHL, has been a disaster. It’s been speculated that Bennett will be taking the role of Pascal Dupuis on the Penguins’ first line alongside Sidney Crosby and Kunitz. Dupuis has been out since December with an ACL injury. Lee Stempniak has played well with the first unit, but when the Penguins were playing with neither Kunitz nor Dupuis, Crosby couldn’t do much with the puck. His frustration has shown, and he has to be thrilled to be getting his favorite winger back. Kunitz and Neal rarely get proper recognition because they are overshadowed by their centers – Crosby with Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin with Neal – but it was evident after their consecutive losses to the Philadelphia Flyers how important both players are to the Pens’ offensive strategy. Letang’s return comes with a sigh of relief. What was originally listed as just an illness eventually came to fruition as a stroke which has kept him out for months. Some people, myself included, think it may be too risky for Letang to return to action this year. Sure, he’s the most important defenseman on the Penguins’ roster, but a stroke is nothing to shake a stick at; it’s one of the most serious diagnoses the Penguins have had to deal with since Mario Lemieux‘s fight with cancer (arguably, of course). If he does suit up again this season, there’s no doubt that the training staff will be monitoring his every move. Remember, this is the crew that wouldn’t allow Crosby to return from concussion-like symptoms until they were absolutely positive it would be perfectly fine. With what happened to Rich Peverly, I wouldn’t be surprised to watch the Pens’ medical staff take an even greater precaution with Letang. Sure, Pens fans alike want him back, but his health is obviously the top priority for everyone involved. Even through all the injuries, the Penguins still have a 15-point lead in the Metropolitan division, but they have their eyes set on the Boston Bruins, who are three points ahead of them for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. All in all, it was a pretty good St. Patrick’s Day for Pens fans, who can expect to watch a healthier Penguins team fight for home-ice advantage in the playoffs as the rest of the season winds down.