The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings may be seeing each other again very soon after Wednesday’s night’s meeting, though how familiar they’ll be able to get with each other remains to be seen.
While it’s unclear if Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma again plans to rest some key players, Kris Letang will return to the ice for a possible first-round playoff preview against a visiting Detroit team looking to secure its 23rd straight postseason appearance.
Letang hasn’t played since Jan. 27, two days before suffering a stroke. Tests revealed a small hole in his heart, which hasn’t been repaired, but general manager Ray Shero says the team is confident playing hockey didn’t cause Letang’s stroke.
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"Kris was cleared by doctors and it was his choice on when to return," Shero told the NHL’s website. "He’s been bugging me for a while to play."
The 2013 Norris Trophy finalist has 10 goals and eight assists in 34 games this season.
Letang, though, may be among the few star Penguins players on the ice. Pittsburgh (50-24-5) is locked into the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed and has won four of six, giving Bylsma the leeway to sit Sidney Crosby (upper-body injury), Chris Kunitz (lower body), Brooks Orpik (lower body) and Olli Maatta (upper body) for Sunday’s 3-2 shootout win at Colorado.
None of the injuries seem serious and each practiced Tuesday, though Bylsma could elect to rest them again given Pittsburgh’s standing with three games to play. Evgeni Malkin, who hasn’t played since March 23 due to a foot injury, began skating but has no timetable to return.
Maatta has missed the last two games, and Crosby, who has never played a full 82-game season and is considered day to day, said he doesn’t plan to rush things with the playoffs looming.
"I’d love to (play a full season), but I think I’ve played more than 82 at this point, if you’re counting every one," Crosby told the team’s official website, referencing the six games he played for Canada in the Olympics. "I think what’s most important is that you feel good at the right time and that’s playoffs. Just have to be smart."
The Penguins could have a first-round postseason date with another team battling injuries, as the Red Wings (38-27-14) are still without captain Henrik Zetterberg while he recovers from back surgery.
General manager Ken Holland said Zetterberg could start skating again next week. Zetterberg likely won’t be ready for the first game of the postseason should Detroit hold on, though he could return at some point during the first round.
Detroit, which can secure a playoff berth with one more point, got some relief with the return of Pavel Datsyuk from a 16-game absence Friday. Datsyuk scored in Saturday’s 5-3 loss in Montreal that ended a four-game winning streak and had an empty-net goal in a 4-2 victory at Buffalo on Tuesday.
The Red Wings hold the East’s first wild-card spot, one point ahead of Columbus with three games to play.
”It’s one good step in the right direction,” said Jimmy Howard, who made 25 saves against the Sabres. ”We’ve got to find a way to get a point or two points there tomorrow and keep it rolling, because you want to feel good going into the playoffs.”
The victory also marked coach Mike Babcock’s 414th with Detroit, surpassing Jack Adams for the franchise lead.
”I know we’ve got a game in Pittsburgh tomorrow. We’re going to enjoy this tonight,” Babcock said. ”The reality is, it’s an important game tomorrow.”
Crosby scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Detroit on Dec. 14, then Daniel Alfredsson’s second goal in overtime gave the Red Wings a 5-4 victory March 20.
Marc-Andre Fleury was in net for the Penguins for the last matchup and he could get the nod again after making 39 saves Sunday.
Jonas Gustavsson could get the start for Detroit in the second of a back-to-back set. Gustavsson, though, allowed all five goals Saturday.