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Penguins' Niskanen earns praise for sterling play on defense

The well-documented struggles of defenseman Paul Martin have led many around the NHL to believe the Penguins will seek a top-four defenseman before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

But what if such a player already exists on the Penguins' roster?

Recent actions indicate the Penguins' coaching staff might think highly enough of defenseman Matt Niskanen to elevate his place on the depth chart.

Niskanen, among the most solid Penguins this season, has surpassed the team's expectations. He found himself in Martin's regular spot, beside defenseman Zbynek Michalek, against Tampa Bay. It probably isn't the last time they will skate together.

"I thought we did pretty well together," Michalek said. "No problems at all."

Niskanen, in fact, has received work this season in a top-four role because of all the injuries the Penguins have faced. Defenseman Kris Letang (concussion), Martin (lower-body injury), defenseman Deryk Engelland (suspension) and defenseman Ben Lovejoy (broken jaw) missed significant time in December for numerous reasons. Niskanen was forced to absorb elevated minutes and responsibilities during this time.

Apparently the additional workload didn't have a negative impact on the former first round pick.

"December was his best month," assistant coach Todd Reirden said. "It was the best hockey we've seen since he's been here."

Niskanen has clearly been a different player this season than the one acquired along with right wing James Neal from Dallas in February.

Against Tampa Bay in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Niskanen was exposed.

Now, he thrives.

"Two things have transpired with him," Reirden said. "We sent him away with a message this summer. That was one thing. The other thing was that he needed to take advantage of opportunities that come up because of injuries. He has answered that very firmly."

The message that Reirden gave Niskanen following the Game 7 loss against Tampa Bay was simple.

"Things didn't end for him last season the way he wanted them to," Reirden said. "In the playoffs, we needed more from him. He knew that, and he knew he was coming into a competitive situation in training camp. He had something to prove, and he's been showing that since day one of camp."

Niskanen has proven, without debate, he is a solid NHL defenseman. He has only been a minus-2 or worse in a game three times this season. His two-way game and excellent skating fit perfectly into coach Dan Bylsma's puck retrieval system.

"He's finally comfortable," Reirden said.

Niskanen said the transition from Dallas to the Penguins wasn't an easy one.

Michalek can relate.

"It took me awhile, too," he said. "I know what he went through. But he's been so great all season."

Great enough, perhaps, to fill a bigger role.

The pairing of Letang and defenseman Brooks Orpik will not be separated this season. However, the other four regulars on the Penguins' blue line figure to go through an experimental phase over the next couple of weeks.

Niskanen figures to find himself in a prominent role, perhaps as a top-four defenseman only one season after playing so poorly in the playoffs.

"We play different here than most places," Niskanen said. "It was something I hadn't seen before. Now that I'm comfortable with it, it's a fast pace, a good way to play hockey. It fits my strengths. I'm very happy with how consistent I've been."

So, too, are the Penguins.

"We sent him home last summer with a message, and you never know how players are going to react in that kind of situation," Reirden said. "Well, he has played some really good hockey."

New-look 'D'

Here's a look at the defensive pairings the Penguins experimented with against Tampa Bay on Sunday:

> > Brooks Orpik-Kris Letang (This is the Penguins' top duo, and that will not change)

> > Matt Niskanen-Zbynek Michalek (Niskanen's comfort on the left side makes this a combination that intrigues the Penguins)

> > Paul Martin-Deryk Engelland (Martin's skating could nicely complement Engelland's muscle)

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