Hal Gill looks like a penalty killer. He was a 6-foot-7, 244-pound battleship who could stand at the faceoff dot and reach the boards with his stick.
Ian Cole looks like a penalty killer. With a full beard and a few missing teeth, he’ll stick his face in front of an opponent’s slap shot if the situation calls for it.
Olli Maatta? He looks more like your paperboy. With no distinguishing marks or scars, he appears even younger than the 24 years his birth certificate claims.
Looks can be deceiving, of course. A close examination of the numbers shows Matta might be the most effective penalty killer in the NHL so far this season.
Maatta has been on the ice for almost 100 short-handed minutes. During that time, Pittsburgh Penguins opponents have scored a grand total of five goals, and Maatta has blocked a team-high 80 shots.
There are 102 defensemen in the league averaging at least two minutes per game of short-handed ice time. Of that group, Maatta has been on the ice for the fewest goals per 60 minutes (3.06).
That’s better than a handful of defensemen who have made their reputation by excelling on the penalty kill, players like Arizona’s Niklas Hjalmarsson (4.49), New Jersey’s Andy Greene (5.43) or San Jose’s Marc-Eduord Vlasic (6.44).
Maatta doesn’t consider himself a grizzled old penalty killer, but he realizes the importance of the making grizzled old plays from time to time.
“I think those guys are really good players, and when you’re a defenseman, it has to come naturally when you play PK. Sometimes it does take blocking shots,” Maatta said. “You can see teams take pride in that. They really appreciate those little things.”
Last season, the Penguins finished 20th in the league in team defense, allowing 3.02 goals per game.
They knew they’d have to improve on that figure this season, and they have. Coming into Tuesday night’s game in San Jose, they were 11th in the league, allowing 2.89 goals per game.
The biggest reason for that improvement is probably the success of the penalty kill. Last year, the Penguins ranked 17th in the league with an 80.0 percent success rate. This year, they’re third at 84.8 percent.
The Penguins have made that jump despite losing Cole and Carl Hagelin to trades. They also have climbed the rankings without many defensemen who could be described as physically punishing in front of the net. Jack Johnson is the closest thing, but he’s no one-dimensional brute.
The secret to this season’s PK success, Maatta figures, starts between the ears.
“I think it’s just positioning,” Maatta said. “It’s sticks. It’s staying in your system and being on the same page as the other three guys, knowing what they’re doing and just trusting them to do the thing.”
It would be great if the Penguins could systematically shut down every opposing power play they face, Maatta said, but he knows that’s not realistic. The more attainable goal is limiting the high-danger chances allowed, and they’ve done a good job in that respect this season.
“Obviously it would be nice if there’s no shots at all, of course, but it’s not as simple as that when you’ve got one guy less than the other team,” Maatta said. “In some situations, you have to give up the shot but force them to try to take a shot from a bad angle or at least a worse angle. I know we trust (Matt Murray) to make those saves. That’s a big part of our kill, too. You just have to try to force a shot from somewhere less dangerous.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.