Pittsburgh didn’t exactly ease Kris Letang back into the lineup

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Upon learning star defenseman Kris Letang would be made available for the first time in 21 games, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said he would use Letang in a top-four defenseman role against the Rangers.

Turns out it was more a “top defenseman” role.

Letang played a team-high 24:17 in last night’s 4-1 win over New York, recording an assist while finishing plus-2. It was a rather epic workload for the 24-year-old rearguard, who hadn’t played since Nov. 26 due to a concussion.

“It was a good game, a good test, to see if I’m in shape, I guess,” Letang told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I felt pretty good out there.”

The timing of Letang’s return was interesting given Pittsburgh’s opponent. The Rangers recently returned a concussed defenseman of their own — Marc Staal, who made his season debut at the 2012 Winter Classic — but integrated him into the lineup as a much more methodical pace than Pittsburgh did with Letang.

Staal played just 12:41 in his first game back, steadily building to the point where head coach John Tortorella felt comfortable giving Staal his usual big minutes — he averaged 25:44 last year.

(Note: Staal’s first big-minute game of the season occurred last night against Pittsburgh as he played 24:58, a season-high. The irony!)

Looking ahead, it’ll be curious to see how Bylsma handles Letang’s minutes tonight against Montreal. It’s Pittsburgh’s second game of a back-to-back and emotions will likely be running high, as Canadiens’ forward Max Pacioretty was the player responsible for concussing Letang back in November.