A year ago, Olli Maatta was starring with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League as a baby-faced 18-year-old blueliner.
Now, Maatta is making history for the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League as a baby-faced 19-year-old blueliner.
With his mother in the stands to watch her son play for the first time, Maatta became just the second Penguins defenseman in franchise history to score on a penalty shot (George Konik) in the Penguins’ 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild at CONSOL Energy Center Thursday night.
“I was really nervous,” Maatta said. “I tried not to push my stick too hard. It worked.”
Maatta deked the puck before going blocker side. The puck barely sneaked through the body of netminder Niklas Backstrom and then slowly crawled over the goal line.
“I’ve tried that move in practice a few times. It’s the only move I have,” Maatta said. “I thought (Backstrom) got it at first. Then I saw it go in so I was pretty excited.”
The goal, which counts as a shorthanded marker, was part of a career-high three-point night (1G-2A) for Maatta. It was possibly his best game in the NHL, although the neophyte is still just 37-games deep.
“Olli, with his mother’s first game in the stands, he gets a big night,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “A couple of assists and the shootout goal.”
With a rash of injuries affecting the Penguins defensive corps like the bubonic plague, their top-4 blueliners are all out, Maatta has gone from a wide-eyed rookie that surprisingly made the team out of training camp to the Pens No. 2 defenseman, logging big minutes in big situations.
“After the game you think it was a pretty good thing right now to keep Olli Maatta around from training camp on,” Bylsma said. “He’s been cast into a big role in the last four games with injuries, in-game match penalty.”
Maatta skated for a career-high 28:06 minutes Wednesday night in New York in a 4-3 shootout win against the Rangers. Less than 24 hours later he logged 21:46 minutes against the Wild.
“You can feel the fatigue a little bit,” Maatta said. “Just play short shifts and keep yourself fresh.”
Maatta is playing in every situation right now for the Penguins: even strength; power play; and penalty kill. Ironically, Maatta’s shorthanded penalty shot goal came as a result of him being in the penalty box.
The Penguins were killing a 5-on-3 with Maatta and Craig Adams in the box for 1:46 minutes. A gutsy effort allowed Maatta to get out of the box and collect a flip pass from Zach Sill for a breakaway, which turned into his penalty shot opportunity.
“I was going back for the penalty kill, but I saw Sill get the puck,” Maatta said. “He made a great pass for me.”
Mattaa received some quality advice from Pascal Dupuis before his penalty shot.
“’Duper’ told me to see if my stick was broken or not. That would be embarrassing,” he joked.
Maatta’s play of late has been anything but embarrassing.
“In the last 15 games (his role has) gotten bigger,” Bylsma said. “The last five games it’s gone to a point where he’s been the top pair and getting the top minutes on the backend with (Matt) Niskanen.
“He’s getting (Pavel) Datsyuk, getting (Brad) Richard and (Rick) Nash and (Zach) Parise. That’s a tall order. The confidence and steadiness, consistency with which he’s played has been the best in the last three, four games.”