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Switch in pairings helps Penguins defensemen find groove in Game 3

| Tuesday, April 22, 2014, 10:24 p.m.
The Penguins' Olli Maatta defends on the Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series Monday, April 21, 2014, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta defends on the Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series Monday, April 21, 2014, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Penguins' stars haven't made their mark in a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against Columbus.

Their blue line, however, is alive and well.

A change in pairings triggered strong play from Penguins defensemen Monday, and the coaching staff hopes the two-way performance is a precursor of things to come.

“The first couple of games were hard for us,” assistant coach Todd Reirden said. “It was very difficult for the guys to adjust to the playoff atmosphere in those first two games. The intensity level and the battle level wasn't where it needed to be. But that push we saw in Game 3, that was a good thing.”

The Penguins made a change in the second period.

Rob Scuderi skated for a lengthy sequence with Matt Niskanen. The two were effective together in October.

Kris Letang, meanwhile, saw the majority of his shifts with rookie Olli Maatta.

The experiment worked.

“That's why you have a system,” Scuderi said.

“So everyone can be interchangeable.”

The decision to change pairings was rooted in a desire to create more offense.

Defenseman Brooks Orpik scored a goal shortly after the change, and defensemen Paul Martin and Maatta set up third-period goals. Receiving offense from the blue line has been a necessity because forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz are without a goal in the series.

“Sometimes, when you're having trouble generating offense,” Reirden said, “it's not forward lines that need changed. We went away from the original pairs for a while.

“It was able to generate different looks. It keeps you fresh, keeps you on your toes.”

Reirden came away from Game 3 having drawn a number of conclusions.

He wants Orpik and Martin, the one tandem that never will be split, on the ice as often as possible. They each played close to 10 minutes in the third period of Game 3. Reirden and coach Dan Bylsma praised how both played and were particularly delighted with Martin's performance.

“Just outstanding,” Reirden said. “Those two were absolutely outstanding. We leaned on them so heavily at the end of the game. I really couldn't get them out there enough.

“Both were really good, and the way Paulie played ... wow.”

Reirden also suggested Scuderi and Niskanen could see more time together. The two played together in October when Letang was out with a knee injury.

“It's definitely something we'll consider more,” Reirden said. “I like how Nisky and Scuds have played together.”

Reirden made one last item clear: He still believes in his prized rookie. Maatta was on the ice for all three goals against in Game 3.

He'll be on the ice in Game 4, too.

“(Monday) kind of sums up how it is with Olli,” Reirden said. “He was on the ice for three goals against. But I still had the belief in him to put him back out there. It wasn't all his fault.

“And he doesn't get down on himself. I always want to make sure to get him back out there.”

Maatta said Tuesday that the Blue Jackets' forwards have been difficult to handle because of their physicality. The rookie plans to handle it better in Game 4.

“It's a lot like the Olympics,” he said. “They're coming after us. But that's OK. That's just part of playoff hockey.”

Another part of playoff hockey is receiving strong work from the defensive group. That was the case in Game 3 as the Blue Jackets saw their scoring opportunities decrease as the game elapsed while the Penguins' offense surged.

“I wouldn't say we've been great,” Scuderi said. “The first two games, we had struggles. (Monday) was excellent.”

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

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