Olli Maatta in midst of career season for Penguins
From a personal perspective, Wednesday was a time for Olli Maatta to celebrate.
Back home in Finland, his native country was commemorating the 100th anniversary of declaring independence from Russia. There were parades and fireworks and a televised gala at the presidential palace with all the most prominent Finnish celebrities in attendance.
“It's something special, for sure,” Maatta said.
From a professional perspective, though, Wednesday brought a potential challenge for the 23-year-old defenseman.
Justin Schultz didn't practice in Cranberry after suffering a lower-body injury the night before. As long as he's out, like they have so many times during Maatta's five-year tenure with the team, the Penguins are preparing to play without a key member of the their defense corps.
“Obviously Schultzy's a huge piece. On the power play and offensively, he can bring a lot to this team,” Maatta said. “I don't think there's only one guy who can fill that job. We all have to be able to.”
Luckily for the Penguins, Maatta is in a perfect position to handle the increased workload a Schultz absence would bring. Maatta is playing as well as he has in a long time.
Tuesday night's game against the Rangers is a case in point. The Penguins lost 4-3 and were awfully loose defensively for stretches, but not Maatta.
When he was on the ice at even strength, the Penguins outshot the Rangers, 19-4. Maatta assisted on Phil Kessel's second-period goal, hit a post on a second-period power play and had five shots on goal.
“I thought he had a strong game,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He's a good two-way defenseman. He's got good offensive instincts. He gets pucks through from the offensive blue line. He can really shoot the puck. He hits the post last night on our power play. We were encouraging our power play to establish that point shot, and he shoots, gets it through, hits the post. He does so much for us at both ends of the rink.”
Tuesday's performance was a part of a trend. At even strength in his last 10 games, Maatta's shot-attempt percentage is tops on the team and 11th-best among regular NHL defensemen.
With 13 points in 29 games, Maatta is on pace for a 37-point season. That would be the best total of his career, topping even his 29-point rookie campaign.
“It has to come natural,” Maatta said. “You can't force it. If you have the chance, you go ahead and jump in the play and carry the puck in. You don't want to force it and get caught. I think there's a fine line.”
The Finns are known for their humility, and in that respect, Maatta is clearly a product of the environment in which he was raised. He doesn't think his play has been consistent enough this season.
“I think I gotta do a better job,” he said. “You can't have those off games, those off periods. I think we've done a good job, usually, two or one period a game, but can't be sleeping for one period. That can cost you a game.”
Whether he's being too hard on himself, it's an attitude that could serve Maatta well in the near future. The Penguins have a softer schedule in December than in October or November. Even if Schultz is out, the time is now to make up some ground.
“I think the homestand we have now, we have to take advantage of it,” Maatta said. “We all know we're not in the spot in the standings we want to be. We haven't played the hockey we want to play. I think we've got better and better as the season has gone on. We'd better keep building on that.”