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'Great to be back': Pens D Letang nets OT winner

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Published in Hockey
Tuesday, 24 January 2023 20:17

PITTSBURGH -- Defenseman Kris Letang, activated off injured reserve earlier in the day, scored twice, including the power-play winner in overtime, and the Pittsburgh Penguins outlasted the Florida Panthers, 7-6, in a roller coaster game befit of two teams trying to secure space above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference.

The 35-year-old Letang had been out since sustaining a lower body injury during an overtime loss to Detroit on Dec. 28. He spent time in his native Montreal during his absence following the death of his father earlier this month.

But he was his old self in his return, scoring his third and fourth goals of the season to go along with two assists in 26:29 time on the ice.

"It was kind of surreal, you know? I didn't know what to think or how it was going to go," Letang said of his return. "These guys supported me for the last month. ... It's just great to be back."

It's been a difficult season for Letang, who signed a six-year contract extension with the Penguins over the summer and had just two goals and 14 assists in 29 games before Tuesday. Letang missed two weeks in November and December after suffering a stroke for the second time in eight years.

Pittsburgh, a traditional staple in the Eastern Conference postseason, is trying to climb its way back onto solid ground. The win gave the Penguins 56 points and the top wild-card position for now, though they are tied with the Washington Capitals.

But it wasn't easy. Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, who was a late scratch. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both that he faced in overtime, to win for just the third time in his last 10 starts.

The Penguins have reached the playoffs 16 straight seasons -- the longest active postseason streak in major North American team sports -- and returned many of the same players this season, including Letang, from their impressive run.

"I think the entertainment value was off the charts. From a coaching standpoint, we'd like it to be a tighter game," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I know we're capable of it. We've got to bring it more consistently. But there's a lot of positives we can take out of it."

The Panthers, too, are fighting to stay in contention for the postseason, a year after racing to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. But time is running short. The overtime point gave Florida 52 on the season, four behind the Capitals and Penguins.

"You want it so bad for them because they had nothing left," Florida coach Paul Maurice said. "They gave everything they had, each guy had a piece of the game where he tried to make an impact. Tough way to lose a game. And it's over."

Before the game, the Penguins placed defenseman Jan Rutta on long-term injured reserve retroactive to Jan. 14 and put forward Kasperi Kapanen on injured reserve retroactive to Jan. 18. And in the postgame, Sullivan told reporters he hadn't heard of Jarry's injury status until the veteran arrived at the arena. Jarry was originally posted as the starter earlier in the day.

"He's being evaluated right now with an upper body injury," Sullivan said. "I don't have anything more for you on that front."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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