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Resurgent Penguins defenseman Kris Letang on verge of meaningful milestone

Jonathan Bombulie
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Kris Letang skates in warm up with the ԈOCKEY FIGHTS CANCERՠjersey before playing the Devils Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

After doctors told Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang in 2014 that he’d had a mild stroke, there weren’t months where he thought his career might be over.

After he found out he’d need surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck last year, there weren’t weeks where he thought he might have to retire.

But moments where he didn’t know what his future would hold? Oh yes, there were moments.

“You go day by day when you go through those things,” Letang said. “Obviously the first day that it happens, it’s always a tough one, but as you get out of it and start to feel better, it’s a thought that kind of gets erased from your memory. It is what it is. Sometimes you grow as you go through different things.”

After coming out the other side of those serious scares, Letang is on the verge of setting a significant franchise record.

The next time he steps foot on the ice, it will be his 704th game in a Penguins uniform, breaking a tie with Brooks Orpik for the most games played by a defenseman in franchise history.

It’s significant to Letang because of the obstacles he’s had to overcome to get there but probably more so because it shows he’s been an irreplaceable contributor to championship-caliber teams for more than a decade.

“It’s pretty cool to have the chance to play for the same team with the same guys, kind of grow all together,” Letang said. “With all the success we had in previous years, it just makes it even sweeter.”

One thing that’s undoubtedly helped Letang move past physical challenges that might have ended the career of others is his commitment to conditioning. A workout fanatic who pays strict attention to his diet, Letang is capable of handling sizable ice-time workloads without succumbing to fatigue.

For that, Letang feels like he’s been a beneficiary of good timing. Athletes’ attitudes about taking care of their bodies were changing right when he was coming of age.

“The training and having a nutritionist, all those things, when I was 13 or 14, they started to get more present in our lives,” Letang said. “I took full advantage.”

Another thing that’s helped Letang set a Penguins record for games played is the way his style meshes with the identity of the franchise.

Since their inception — or at least since they drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984 — the Penguins have been a team that wins with speed and skill. At the risk of overlooking Letang’s defensive-zone game, which teammates frequently say is underrated, it’s hard to imagine a defenseman who fits the team’s image better.

“If you look at the evolution of this D corps, he’s the guy who’s been here the longest. He’s definitely the leader of our group,” frequent defense partner Brian Dumoulin said. “He never gets tired. He always wants the puck. He always wants to make a play. He’s a fun, energetic guy to play with. He’s a great friend, and I look forward to playing with him.”

Letang’s status as leader of the defense corps never has been on display more than it is right now.

No matter how it’s sliced statistically — goals, shots, shot attempts, scoring chances — he’s been the team’s best defensemen through the first two months of the season.

If the Penguins are going to climb back into contention after a poor start, Letang must be one of the beacons lighting the way.

Even with 703 games behind him, it’s a challenge he seems ready for.

“I would say,” Letang concluded, “I feel as good as I ever felt.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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