NEW YORK -- It's unlikely Pittsburgh Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta ever imagined he would be one of the team's most veteran defensemen at any point this season. But injuries to Pittsburgh's top four blueliners have suddenly forced Maatta into that very situation.
And he's making the transition look easy.
The 19-year-old easily topped his career high for minutes in Pittsburgh's 4-3 shootout victory against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. His 28:06 topped his previous high of 24:17, which he set in a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs two nights earlier.
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 9
SOG: 52 | +/-: 3
Maatta found himself in every situation Wednesday alongside defensive partner Matt Niskanen. That included the key defensive assignment of going against the Rangers' top line of Derek Stepan, Rick Nash and Chris Kreider.
"The role is bigger. He's playing against the other team's best players right now. We're seeing him in a big penalty kill role as well. He's certainly been up to the task," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who said he isn't terribly surprised by the rookie's emergence. "He's a 19-year-old kid, but he certainly hasn't played like it at all in the first 36 games. His minutes are going up because of the injuries we have, but the consistency with which he plays has not changed. That's been there since training camp."
Entering his rookie season, Maatta hoped he might mature into an everyday NHL defenseman. But he never expected to assume a veteran's role so soon in his career. Maatta competed in his 36th NHL game Wednesday; two recent defensive call-ups from the American Hockey League who skated against the Rangers, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson, have now played in five games combined.
"It's tough, of course. It's not an ideal situation to have so many guys hurt. At the same time, all the guys like Niskanen and the forwards have been really good helping us," Maatta said. "They know we're an inexperienced group back there. They're really helping us and supporting us a lot."
Even if he never expected to have so many rookie defensemen in the lineup at once, Bylsma hasn't made any excuses for his young defense corps. They're expected to play a certain way no matter the circumstances. And with an uncanny string of injuries to important veteran players, Maatta has emerged as an unlikely leader for a surging Penguins team that has won six in a row and 10 of its past 11 games.
"The expectation for how we play and the guys stepping is not to tread water. It's to bar the door and hold on until someone else arrives," Bylsma said. "You're expected to step in and contribute and play the right way. You see that with the confidence when they step over the boards, the confidence when they play."