Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said that defenseman Olli Maatta will not play in tonight’s Game 3 against Washington.
“He’s out with an upper-body injury,” Sullivan said of Maatta, who left Game 2 in the opening minutes after being hit by former teammate Brooks Orpik. “The rest of the lineup will be a game-time decision.”
The Pens have two options to replace Maatta on the back end – Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot. While Sullivan wouldn’t disclose which one would get the call, he did say that the coaching staff is comfortable with either one of them as both appeared in key games for the Pens down the stretch.
“We think we have eight defensemen here that can help us win,” Sullivan said. “I’ve said this all along – the reality is we’ve relied on all of these guys down the stretch to help us win.
“When we make lineup decisions back there, the criteria that we always use is which guys do we think are going to help this team win on a given night depending on matchups we want or aspects of our game where we think their skillsets can fulfill those needs.”
When it comes to their skillsets, Sullivan sees them both as being puck-moving defensemen. With Schultz in particular, the coach is a big fan of his ability to put the puck on net.
“He’s got a great one-timer, so he can help us in that regard,” Sullivan said. “He’s got a real good shot. He’s a guy who can help us get out of our end zone. He can join the rush. He can play on the power play. He has the ability to help us in a lot of areas.”
After being acquired from Edmonton on Feb. 27 – where he was a minus-22 in 45 games with the Oilers – Schultz appeared in 18 games for Pittsburgh, where he finished the regular season with a plus-7.
The 25-year-old made his NHL playoff debut in Game 1 of the opening round against the NY Rangers, dressing as the seventh defenseman and logging 5:52 minutes of ice time.
“It was awesome,” Schultz said of that experience. “The crowd was buzzing. It was exciting, it’s playoff hockey. It’s what you want to be a part of, so hopefully I get a chance here.”
Pouliot, on the other hand, has yet to appear in an NHL postseason. While he admitted there would be nerves, the 22-year-old feels he’s done everything he can to be prepared for the opportunity.
“It’s been a little while, but we’re skating pretty much every day trying our best to stay in it,” said the eighth-overall pick in the 2012 draft. “It’s a little tough. You don’t get a lot of practice time in the playoffs so these morning skates and stuff like that, you try to use it to your advantage. My body feels good. If I get in, I’ll be ready.”
After starting the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and spending the first half there, Pouliot was recalled on Jan. 18 and appeared in 22 games for Pittsburgh down the stretch.
“Derrick is a good player,” Sullivan said. “He can move the puck, he’s a strong kid, he’s a big body. I think he’s really improved with the defensive aspect of his game and we’re real pleased with the progress that he’s made.”
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Sunday night that they had suspended former Pen Orpik three games for interference on Maatta, calling the hit forceful, unacceptably high and excessively late (watch the video explanation here).
“You kind of expected something to happen,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “It was a bad hit. It’s a hit that probably shouldn’t happen and they took care of it like they usually do. I don’t think you have to analyze it that much. It is what it is.”
Orpik agreed, taking full responsibility and saying he felt the punishment was fair.
“It was a bad hit,” he said. “It was intended to be a hard hit, definitely not (intended) at his head … But it was definitely late. I think that was pretty black and white. I said that during my hearing yesterday. Disappointed. It was a split second decision you make and just got to live with it.”
Orpik said he spoke to Maatta, who was his teammate during the 21-year-old’s rookie season in 2013-14, right after the game and opted to leave what was said between the two of them.
Orpik added that it was difficult to watch Maatta be assisted off the ice, especially considering he had been in a similar spot three weeks ago after being hit into the boards by Philadelphia’s Ryan White.
“He’s a pretty good friend, so it made the situation a little tougher,” Orpik said.
Orpik was then asked to explain his thought process during the play.
“To be honest with you, it happened pretty quick,” he said. “I know it’s pretty easy to watch in slow motion and kind of second-guess your decision. I think we made a point before the game and before the series to be hard on their guys, especially their defensemen. That’s what I tried to do and made a pretty bad mistake with how late it was. It was a bad decision, it was late and there was obviously no intention to hit him in the head, but that was the result and that’s why I’m not playing.”
When speaking to the Department of Player Safety during his hearing, Orpik said he didn’t have much to argue.
“Obviously I told them there was no intent there and there was no denying it was late,” Orpik said. “That’s pretty much all there was to it. That was the end result. I didn’t really know what to expect out of how many games. Whatever they gave me was something I was just going to have to accept and that’s what we’re going to do moving forward here and hopefully across the league, they start punishing everything else the same way.”
The area that needs the most improvement heading into Game 3 is the Pens’ power play. It went scoreless on five opportunities during the first two periods of play in Game 2 – three of those coming with Pittsburgh holding a 1-0 lead.
Despite its failure to take advantage of any of those opportunities, Sullivan didn’t want his group to dwell on the negatives.
“I told our group this morning not to get discouraged because we were close,” he said. “We had a number of Grade-A scoring chances that we didn’t convert. Our entries were a very high success rate. We won a lot of faceoffs.”
The one tweak Sullivan would like to see from his guys is getting more pucks at the net.
“I think we can have a little bit more of a shooting mentality,” he said. “I think we can move the puck a little bit quicker which can help us generate more opportunities. But it wasn’t far off, and so we’ve given our guys a couple of ideas that we think can help them in tonight’s game.”
At the end of the day, the biggest key for Sullivan isn’t necessarily strategy – it’s swagger.
“What’s most important from my standpoint is that they keep their swagger and their confidence level, because they’ve been really important to helping us have success here down the stretch,” he said.
- Ian Cole on losing Maatta: “Olli is an awesome guy. We’re all big fans of him. He’s a great teammate and a great hockey player. As far as our hole in the lineup, we certainly have one. Obviously that’s not ideal going into a playoff game against a team like the Capitals, but we’re definitely going to try and pick up the slack he’s leaving as best we can.”
- Eric Fehr on hearing from friends in Washington after scoring the game-winning goal in his old barn: “There are some reactions. None of them really great but that’s to be expected. There’s a pretty big rivalry here and it definitely comes with the territory. … I’d be mad if they switched sides. Nobody likes a bandwagon fan. You’ve got to respect the fact that they’ve stuck with their team.”
- Sullivan on Matt Murray: “As a young player, he has the ability to keep his focus. He doesn’t get affected by some of the ebbs and flows of the game. If he lets a goal in that he thinks he might want to have back or if things don’t go his way, he has the ability to not let that affect the rest of his game. He just refocuses and he plays. I think that’s a maturity level that usually it takes players of any position to acquire over time. It’s a mental toughness. It’s an important element of being a pro, in my opinion. No matter what position, but arguably more importantly in the goaltending position. And Matt has that. I don’t know if that’s just part of his DNA, if he can thank his parents for that, but certainly he’s acquired that as a young player and I think that helps him be successful.”
- Sullivan when asked about the ‘second line’: “Which line’s the second line?”
(The reporter was referring to Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel).