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Rivalry Night Faceoff: Maatta vs. Kreider

Wednesday, 12.18.2013 / 3:00 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine which rookie has had a bigger impact on his team, New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider or Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta.

Chris Kreider has become an impactful player for the Rangers this season after failing to make the team out of training camp. Olli Maatta wasn't expected to stay in Pittsburgh after the first nine games of the season, but he's played in all 35 games and is now getting top-pair minutes.

As the Rangers and Penguins get set to play at Madison Square Garden in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), it's become apparent how important each of these rookies, Kreider and Maatta, are to their respective teams.

Prior to this season, Kreider had shown his potential in spurts going back to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he had five goals in 18 games. This season, though, he's playing first-line left wing, and displaying the power and speed scouts have drooled over and the Rangers have raved about since they took him with the No. 19 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.

He has 18 points in 27 games.

Maatta, who had no NHL experience prior to this season, has been forced into a bigger role because of injuries to the Penguins' top four defensemen, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi. He's handled the extra workload with ease, evidenced by how effective he was in playing a career-high 24:17 in a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday.

He was arguably Pittsburgh's best defenseman against Toronto.

It's come to the point now that the Rangers need Kreider to be as effective as Rick Nash. The same holds true for the Penguins and Maatta. They rely on the 19-year-old Finnish defenseman, especially with so many missing pieces on the back end due to injuries.

In what ways have they influenced their teams and, by extension, who has made a bigger impact? That's what we're examining this week, so let's get to it:

CHRIS KREIDER

If you stand close enough to Kreider, one of the first things you notice is how powerful his lower body is. His legs are like tree trunks, strong enough that without using his arms or any assistance whatsoever he can jump out of the shallow end of a pool and land standing on the deck.

Kreider is using that power in his legs to his advantage since he was recalled from the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate on Oct. 20.

"The thing about Chris Kreider is when he was in college and other levels below the NHL his skating was so exceptional that he just skates past people, they're just not good enough," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "At the NHL level not only are guys good enough, but they're smart enough to cut you off. What I see with his skating now, he's using it now to drive past people. He gets into those one-on-one confrontations and he's not getting negated anymore. Now he's powering through people."

Kreider came onto the scene like a blur in the 2012 playoffs after winning the NCAA championship with Boston College. Two of his five goals were game-winners. He quickly became a star in the Big Apple, but he was still young and raw. About the only person who wasn't gushing about him was former Rangers coach John Tortorella, who kept reminding everybody who asked him that Kreider still had to "go through the process."

Kreider struggled with the process last season. He had a slow start in the AHL during the lockout and then had to overcome a concussion. Mistakes at the NHL level were rampant. He wasn't confident, so he wasn't using his power and speed. He was relegated to a bottom-six role and was shuttled up and down from the minors.

Kreider had three points in 23 NHL games and 23 points in 48 AHL games.

"There were still things that Chris needed to learn," Button said. "I'm talking about positioning, stuff that John [Tortorella] is maniacal on. I think Chris went through the developmental growing pains. He was a work in progress."

Kreider was expected to flourish right away in coach Alain Vigneault's more wide-open system, but he didn't have a good camp so he started the season in Hartford. It may have been the best thing for Kreider because he humbly went to the minors and, unlike last season, played well. He had four points and 16 shots on goal in six games.

Kreider has built on that success with the Rangers. It was most evident on Nov. 30, when Tortorella returned to the Garden with the Vancouver Canucks and watched as Kreider recorded his first NHL hat trick.

OLLI MAATTA

Maatta made the opening-night lineup, but it was supposed to be an experiment. The thought was the Penguins would keep him around for nine games, see how he did, and return him to his junior team, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, if he was in over his head.

Maatta forced the Penguins to keep him beyond the nine games because, as coach Dan Bylsma said at the time, "he's given us the best chance to win hockey games."

Nothing has changed. In fact, Maatta has only gotten better and more comfortable, so much so that Bylsma moved him up to play with Kris Letang before the rash of injuries gave Maatta the opportunity to show he can effectively handle more than 20 minutes of ice time no matter who he plays with or against.

He's played more than 21 minutes in four of the past six games. He played more than 19 minutes in each of the other two games. His possession numbers show that he's been better when skating with the Penguins' bottom-six group of forwards, but Maatta is only now getting a consistent opportunity to play with Pittsburgh's top players so that could change.

"It's one thing to understand how to play, it's an entirely different thing to understand how your skills and experiences integrate with the game," Button said. "He understands both those parts so well. He played a lot of big minutes in a lot of big games in London. He understands the demands of playing a lot. He's a godsend to the Pittsburgh Penguins, quite frankly."

Button said Maatta reminds him of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh because he's smart, can move the puck efficiently and will jump into the attack when the time is right.

"You're not going to put him into the star category, but you're going to put him into the exceptionally good category," Button said. "A lot of times people talk about limitations and say, 'Know your limitations.' I think you reverse it on Olli Maatta, he knows his capabilities."

Maatta is big too. He's 6-foot-2, 206 pounds, but he doesn't play a rugged, physical game. He's more about positioning and his size helps him hold his ground.

"The other thing about Olli is he's a tenacious, determined player," Button said. "He doesn't give up on the play. Guys like him are no fun to play against because you think you got him beat and he's still there. You're like, 'Oh come on, I just shook you off,' but there he is again. They're annoying."

VERDICT

Maatta has had a bigger impact because his play in the defensive end has translated into mostly positive results while Kreider's contributions offensively, while noteworthy and impressive, have waned this month.

Pittsburgh entered play Tuesday fourth in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.14) and fourth in shots-against per game (26.9). Maatta has been good in his own zone and has helped the Penguins transition into offense so their star players can get on the ice in scoring situations. He's playing a bigger role now and has not had any drop in his play.

Kreider has two goals and no assists in seven games since recording his hat trick against the Canucks. The Rangers are 2-4-1 in those games.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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