PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta was scratched for Games 2, 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Final because coach Mike Sullivan was unhappy with his play. The Penguins played better without Maatta, making it seem like he might not get back into the lineup.
But a season-ending ankle injury to Trevor Daley in the second period of Game 4 opened the door wide open for Maatta. He responded with his three best games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, maybe of the entire season, to help the Penguins win the series in seven games.
Maatta enters Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) with a secure spot in the Penguins' lineup on the second defense pair with Ben Lovejoy.
"A wake-up call that you've gotta be better," Maatta said of how he took getting scratched against the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I knew that. Everybody knew that. When I got my chance to come back I just had to be better. It's as simple as that."
Maatta responded with two assists in Pittsburgh's 4-3 loss in Game 5. He had another assist in the Penguins' 5-2 win in Game 6 at Amalie Arena.
He didn't get a point in Pittsburgh's 2-1 win in Game 7, but his stretch pass to Evgeni Malkin started the rush that led to Bryan Rust's first goal. He was a plus-2.
Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Rust fires wrister past Vasilevskiy
"I've just played," Maatta said. "I haven't overthought it. I haven't been hesitant out there. I went out there and just tried to have fun, just play. It's the Stanley Cup Playoffs, best time of the year. Do not overthink it, just go out there and play."
Maatta said he was guilty of being hesitant before getting scratched, particularly in Game 1. Maybe that had something to do with the head injury he sustained in Game 2 of the second round against the Washington Capitals, when he was injured by friend and former teammate Brooks Orpik.
Maatta missed the next three games, but returned to play 17:57 in Game 6 to help the Penguins close out the Capitals.
"If you're hesitant out there that's never good," Maatta said. "It's such a quick game and it has to come naturally."
That was basically the message Maatta got from assistant coach Jacques Martin after his tough Game 1 against the Lightning, when he was beat badly by Alex Killorn leading to Tampa Bay's first goal and generally had a tough all-around game with his passing and positioning.
Video: Penguins Defenseman Olli Maatta on Media Day
Martin said Maatta was guilty of being his own worst enemy after that Killorn goal.
"Sometimes when you really care, that can play against you," Martin said. "You've got to be able to park that goal like Killorn got. Hey, that's a mistake, park it, leave it and play your game. It's going to happen. I think he was able to do that and regain his confidence. It was good maturity. We need him and he's played well."
Martin said Lovejoy has helped Maatta in the past three games because he's a strong communicator. It also helps that Lovejoy is willing to stay back as a safety valve for Maatta, so he can join the rush and be more offensive.
"He's so smart," Lovejoy said of Maatta. "He is able to put himself in positions to be successful defensively, and he is very talented at getting up in to the rush and finding the right seams, the right lanes, the right places to get pucks to be an effective offensive defenseman."
Maatta is also emotional, so he said the fact that Sullivan and Martin never read him the riot act or showed any signs of losing faith in him, even when he was scratched, made a difference in how he was able to respond.
"They were really confident that I could come back and play well and that was really big for me that they still trusted me," Maatta said. "They knew I could play better and I knew I could play better. That was the message."
Maatta is coming off his three best games in the playoffs. It never would have happened without the wake-up call.
"Sometimes you need that," Martin said. "Maybe it helps you realize, 'Hey, I can be better.' Sometimes you get into a comfort zone and you need something out of the ordinary to shock you and to get you out of that comfort zone."