Penguins’ Olli Maatta cleared for contact as competition for lineup spots on D heats up
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Olli Maatta took a few minutes to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket Thursday morning, taking Duke to win it all and, perhaps because he was influenced by the talk from the locals at Bridgestone Arena, Tennessee to make the Final Four.
What Maatta’s really excited about, however, is the chance that he might get to take part in some March Madness on the ice.
A little less than six weeks after suffering a shoulder injury Feb. 11 in Philadelphia, Maatta was cleared for contact Thursday, participating in morning skate in Nashville.
After most of his teammates left the ice, he had assistant coaches Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi and extra defenseman Zach Trotman knock him around some to make sure he was ready to take the next step.
“I felt good,” Maatta said. “I’ve been skating pretty hard. It’s nice to join the guys finally. Hope to get back there soon enough.”
Maatta is close to being cleared to return to the lineup, which is a cause for celebration considering the potentially serious nature of the injury when it occurred.
“In the beginning, you think it could be something bad,” Maatta said. “All these things go through your head. I think at that point, just try to be calm and patient and check with the doctors and let them do their job.”
Once cleared, Maatta won’t find it easy to wedge his way back into the team’s top six on the blue line. There will be four left-handed defensemen – Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson and Maatta – for three spots.
Coach Mike Sullivan has never been fond of using a lineup that includes seven defensemen and 11 forwards, so the competition for jerseys on game nights figures to be fierce.
“As a coaching staff, as a rule, we’ve never been a believer of seven D, but obviously with the complement of defensemen that we have, it’s something we could take into consideration,” Sullivan said. “I think the competition is obvious. We’ve got a lot of real solid defensemen. When Olli is cleared to play, it will make for some difficult decisions from our standpoint.”
Maatta said he’s up for the challenge.
“I think it’s good for us,” Maatta said. “I think when you’re looking at going far, you need that depth. I think right now, with the group of D men we have, nine D men and everybody can play and be involved. It’s a competition. You’re just pushing each other to get better and better.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .