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Penguins notebook: Maatta, Niskanen step up in defensive mix

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 7:42 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskinen during practice Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 at Consol Energy Center.

Olli Maatta wasn't supposed to play for the Penguins this season. Matt Niskanen seemed a likely candidate to get traded last summer because of the salary cap.

Entering the season's stretch drive, Maatta is a Calder Trophy candidate and Niskanen, more now than ever, is among the Penguins' most indispensable players.

The defensive duo, pegged as the third pairing when the blue line finally found good health in January, ultimately may find itself in the top four.

“I think we're confident if that's the way it goes,” Niskanen said.

Much depends on the health of defenseman Kris Letang.

Out indefinitely after suffering a stroke in January, Letang's status remains unknown. The Penguins are confident that the 26-year-old defenseman will play again, but no one knows if he will return this season.

If he doesn't, Maatta and Niskanen will slide into the second pairing behind Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik. Defenseman Rob Scuderi probably would be paired with Robert Bortuzzo.

Are the Penguins still a Stanley Cup team with Niskanen and Maatta in the top four, and Letang out of the lineup?

“That's a tough question,” Niskanen said. “First of all, we certainly are a better team with Tanger in the lineup. That's obvious. Having said that, you know, Olli and I have been pushed into the top four numerous times this season.

“And I think we've handled it very well.”

Niskanen is 12th among NHL defensemen with 34 points despite limited time on the top power play. His plus-29 mark is the NHL's best among any player.

Those numbers did not drop even when Niskanen and Maatta were playing 25 minutes per night against the opposition's best line during a stretch in December that saw Scuderi (broken ankle), Martin (broken leg), Letang (elbow infection) and Orpik (concussion) miss substantial time.

Niskanen is playing the finest hockey of his career, and Maatta, at 19, has blown away teammates and coaches with his consistency. The earlier venture into top four minutes only seemed to make the unit stronger.

Fearing that Maatta might wear down later in the season, Penguins coaches' concerns earlier in the campaign have been reduced.

“Olli's progression has been exceptional,” assistant coach Todd Reirden said. “He continues to climb. His play in the Olympics (for Finland) has only validated his role.”

Niskanen doesn't see his rookie defense partner slowing down.

“Olli's a freak,” Niskanen said. “We feel good about what we're doing.”

Notes: Reirden, who has been coordinating practices for the non-Olympic Penguins at Consol Energy Center all week, ran a 45-minute workout Thursday.

He said the workouts are a combination of keeping players well conditioned while also dabbling into the finer points of the team's system. The Penguins will practice at 10 a.m. at Southpointe on Friday in a workout that is open to the public.

Reirden moved the practice from 11 to 10 a.m. so that the players and coaching staff can watch Team USA take on Team Canada in the Olympic semifinals at noon.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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