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Maatta Thrives in Adversity

by Mark Madden / Pittsburgh Penguins

For Olli Maatta, it's about time something goes right.

Things haven't gone totally wrong, to be sure. The Finnish defenseman has been a regular on two Stanley Cup winners over the past two seasons.

But Maatta, 23, has been hampered by numerous maladies since his rookie season, 2013-14. Thyroid cancer. Two surgeries on the same shoulder. Mumps. Maatta conquered all.

But what toll was taken physically? How long would the healing process truly take?

That question seems to have been answered.

Maatta says he feels "great," and has noticeable jump in his stride. He's been an offensive machine in the new season's early days, racking up two goals and three assists in the Penguins' first five games.

That ties Maatta for third on the Penguins' scoring chart, two points in back of leader Bryan Rust. Heady times.

Maatta had just one goal in 55 games last season. But the offensive skill has always been there: Witness nine goals in 78 games as a rookie.

"I'm just trying to get it on net when I have a chance," Maatta said after collecting a goal and assist in the Penguins' 4-0 home victory over Nashville Oct. 7. "Our forwards do a great job getting in front of the net."

Said Coach Mike Sullivan, "We've always believed Olli has good offensive instincts. He jumps in the plays when he sees them. I believe his hockey IQ is his greatest asset. He sees the ice so well.

"He's a cerebral player, both defensively and offensively. The fact that he's getting involved in the offense more is an indicator that he feels good about himself and his game."

The start of the season hasn't been perfect for the Penguins, or for Maatta.

The Penguins are 2-2-1. A 10-1 drubbing at Chicago Oct. 5 provided an ignominious moment. Maatta was minus-5. That will ruin your stats for a month.

But things got a lot better just two days later vs. Nashville.

"We won puck battles and had a lot of hits," said Maatta after. "We don't kill guys, but we're tough to play against when we play that way."

Maatta sparkled against the Predators. His shot was deflected in by Ryan Reaves for the Penguins' third goal, and then Maatta buried a slap shot over the glove of Nashville goalie Juuse Saros for the game's last tally.

Maatta got the game's No. 2 star for his efforts, but not just for his stats.

"Everybody had really good sticks tonight, especially in the slot on plays below the goal line," said goaltender Matthew Murray. "Olli made a great block in the second period on a guy right in the middle of the slot with a grade-A chance. That's the difference."

Maatta, like his teammates, used the humiliation at Chicago as a learning experience.

"We realize how hard it is to win in this league," Maatta said. "You can't go out there and play 50 per cent. You've got to give everything, every chance you get. If you don't, it's going to be tough.

"You can't get too comfortable. I know we won the last two seasons, but it's a new season. It doesn't give you any advantage. You start at zeroes.

"Every game counts."

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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