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Olli Maatta emerging as dependable defenseman for Penguins vs. Senators

Staying healthy, providing strong play in all areas during Eastern Conference Final

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Monday was an optional, but defenseman Olli Maatta was among those who decided to skate. 

No one could blame him for trying to keep his roll going.

Maatta has scored the first goal the past two games against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final, helping the Penguins take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series. The Penguins can advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year with a victory in Game 6 in Ottawa on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

 

[RELATED: Complete Eastern Conference Final coverage]

 

With the Penguins dealing with a slew of injuries on defense throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Maatta is a big reason why they are in position to become the first defending champion to return to the Final since the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, and could become the first repeat Cup champion since the Red Wings in 1998. Beyond his recent goal surge -- he hadn't scored in 46 prior playoff games -- Maatta has been a steadying force on the Penguins' defense while others have been in and of the lineup.

"I think Olli's playing his best hockey right now that I've seen," coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence. I think the fact that he's gotten rewarded here with a couple of goals lately certainly helps him in that regard. But I think he's playing his best hockey right now at both ends of the rink. He's hanging onto pucks and making those subtle plays that help us get out of our end zone and he has that ability. I think his confidence helps him in that regard as well and he's defending hard."

Maatta, 22, clearly is enjoying this run. With defensemen Kris Letang (season-ending neck surgery), Justin Schultz (upper body) and Chad Ruhwedel (concussion) out, Sullivan has been relying upon him heavily during the conference final.

The 6-foot-2, 206-pound native of Jyvaskyla, Finland, is third on the Penguins with an average ice time of 20:26 during the playoffs. But in the first five games against the Senators he's averaged 21:55 per game, second on Pittsburgh behind defenseman Brian Dumoulin (22:00).

"It's awesome," Maatta said. "Unfortunately injuries happen, but at the same time I think you've just got to keep working. It's awesome to be healthy again. Just being part of this team, you can feel how everybody just enjoys coming to the rink every day and being around each other."

Video: OTT@PIT, Gm5: Maatta blasts one-timer past Anderson

It's been a pleasant change for Maatta, who has missed more than his share of games during his four NHL seasons because of health concerns, including time during his rookie season in 2013-14 following surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid. During the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup last season, he missed three games because of a concussion and was a healthy scratch for three games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning before getting back in the lineup when Trevor Daley fractured his ankle.

This season Maatta missed 25 games after breaking his left hand on a hit by Winnipeg Jets forward Adam Lowry on Feb. 16. He made it back for the Penguins' regular-season finale against the New York Rangers on April 9 and hasn't missed a game since then.

He's one of nine Penguins to play all 17 of their postseason games so far. Eight defensemen have played at least one playoff game, but Maatta, Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey are the only ones not to miss a game.

"We know we have the group good enough to win the games," Maatta said. "We have so much depth in this group we know if guys go down it's part of the game. It's unfortunate, but we have so many good players on this team. So if somebody goes down there's always somebody who steps up [his] game,\ and it's probably not only one guy. It's a lot of guys who step up, which is awesome to see."

Maatta has been one of the Penguins who have stepped up. In 17 playoff games he has seven points (two goals, five assists), equaling his point production (one goal, six assists) from 55 regular-season games.

That the puck has gone in for him the past two games has been a bonus. Playing mostly on a pairing with Daley, he's been solid defensively and one of the key players in helping the Penguins move the puck quickly out of the defensive zone.

"He's a strong kid," Sullivan said. "He's strong down low, he's strong in front of our net and he's a really competitive guy. We're relying on him to continue to play the game that we know he's capable of to help the team win and he's certainly playing at his very best right now."

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