Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to the lineup Saturday night, just 12 days after suffering the second stroke of his career Nov. 28.
Saying "it means the world to our team," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan drew Letang back in against the Buffalo Sabres after a five-game absence. Earlier in the day, he was deemed a game-time decision, but ultimately skated in 25 shifts during the Penguins' 3-1 home victory, covering 22:14 time on the ice. He was his traditional active self, finishing with seven hits, three blocked shots and two minutes in penalties.
"It feels great. As I was starting to feel better, you get anxious, you want to go back out there," Letang said after the win. "With the schedule, we don't have a chance to practice that much. So tried to prepare the best I could. Timing needs to get a little better, but the legs were there."
Letang returned as a streaking Penguins club capped a back-to-back sweep of Buffalo. Pittsburgh is now on a 13-2-2 run. On Friday night, the Penguins outlasted the Sabres 4-3.
Letang, 35, who has one goal and 12 points in 22 games, was able to resume practicing Thursday and said he felt "pretty good." It was a quicker turnaround than Letang experienced in 2014, when he was sidelined 26 games over nearly two months following the first stroke.
"When I started feeling better, obviously I ramped up the intensity in practice, but there was a couple of things we had to wait on," Letang said. "Like blood tests, stuff like that, just to make sure I can go into contact. Once it was clear, I got the green light."
In both instances, a small hole in Letang's heart caused the issue. But the second stroke -- precipitated by debilitating headaches and nausea -- was indicated by Pittsburgh's team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas to be "much smaller" than the first.
While it was a relief for the Penguins to see Letang at the Thursday session, Vyas said at the time there was no hurry for Letang to get back in a game.
"We don't think this is accelerated in any way," Vyas said. "We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play, and when that time comes, we'll let him go back to playing his sport."
The biggest concern for Letang -- a married father of two -- has been his family. He said going through the experience a second time was "scary" and prioritizing his family's collective healthy future was the priority.
"My kids, they don't care if I'm a hockey player or not," Letang said Thursday. "They care about having a dad.
"Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there's so much more. After hockey, there's a long time, and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids."
Letang signed a six-year contract extension last summer that should take him to the end of his career in Pittsburgh. Vyas said it's unclear if Letang is more susceptible to strokes moving forward, so the defenseman is prepared for whatever outcomes might be ahead.
"Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding," Letang said, "that we're going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it's no danger for me to keep going."