Penguins' Vitale energized after healthy scratches
February 19, 2013 10:00 AM
John Woods/The Canadian Press
Joe Vitale drives for the net against the Jets' Dustin Byfuglien in the second period Friday in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joe Vitale was talking recently about being a healthy scratch a couple of times this season and the high amount of energy he showed on the ice when he got back in the Penguins lineup.
"Shot out of a cannon," interjected winger Pascal Dupuis, who was eavesdropping.
Vitale, the team's fourth-line center -- most games, anyway -- could be tagged with that self-explanatory title of being an "energy guy," but that might shortchange him.
He just wants to be part of a solid line, one that usually includes Craig Adams and Tanner Glass, and to do that he expects more of himself than just a high-energy expenditure.
"I've felt better and better each game," said Vitale, 27 but just a second-year NHL player. "Last season I was kind of in between. The confidence has grown.
"I think I'd like to establish myself, have my teammates depend on me and be a strong fourth-line center, be defensively responsible, work hard in the gritty areas.
"By the end of the year I hope to be an established fourth-line guy."
As Vitale sees it this season, the fourth line's duties include frustrating top players on opposing teams, in part by cycling the puck -- essentially a game of keep-away -- in the offensive zone.
"I think our fourth line has kind of evolved a little bit," he said. "We can be depended on to go out there against other teams' top lines and to defend well. We're a reliable group.
"You don't always see that a lot on a fourth line. Maybe two or three guys on a fourth line are like that and maybe one tough guy or a big heavyweight."
Vitale is probably most noticeable when he is flying around the ice, and that was particularly clear in the ensuing games after he was a healthy scratch for the season opener and again Feb. 10.
He said he tried to make the most of sitting out by watching and learning, but he was keen on getting back into the lineup.
"Yeah, I don't like sitting out," he said. "I had a little [ammunition] in my cannon, for sure, coming back."
At practice, a point of emphasis for Vitale is on faceoffs.
He leads the team with a success rate of 64.3 percent after turning in a healthy 55.7 percent last season.
He works with the team's other centers, including Sidney Crosby, who famously spent one offseason early in his career concentrating on faceoffs and has improved steadily since.
Vitale also gets coached by assistant Tony Granato.
He has learned to watch and adjust.
The players talk among themselves rather than studying video in terms of a scouting report on opposing team's centers, but Vitale also studies the linesmen.
Some, for instance, drop the puck quickly, while others have a tiny delay.
"I've learned to observe the linesmen from the bench. I sit there for the better part of the game and I can witness the two linesmen and see what their habits are," said Vitale, who is averaging 10 minutes, 35 seconds of ice time per game.
But the biggest adjustment he has made in faceoffs is contorting his arms to take all or most of his draws on his strong side, his backhand.
"It's more of a quick move," he said.
"I'm switching over, putting my back hand on top, right side and left side [of the ice].
"So far, knock on wood, it's been going pretty well."
Vitale has never been a sniper. He had a high of 12 goals -- any season, anywhere -- as a junior at Northeastern. Last season, he had four goals, 14 points in 68 games with the Penguins.
This season, his only two points have been assists -- one coming in the game after he was first a healthy scratch, and one coming two games after he was a healthy scratch.
The second one, in a 3-1 win Friday at Winnipeg, came when Vitale drove down the ice with authority and led to Adams getting a couple of whacks at the puck and, eventually, his first of two goals in the game.
Those were the first two goals and just the third and fourth points produced by the fourth line this season.
Getting more scoring chances, and converting more of them, would be a bonus.
"We've been off the scoreboard a little bit, but I think our identity as a line is to spend time in the offensive zone, wear other teams down," he said. "That has been a big focus for us.
"You try to bring a little bit of energy, a little bit of momentum to the guys on the team. It would be nice to score. We're getting a lot of chances as a line.
"But we'll just keep at what we're doing."
NOTES -- The Penguins took a full day off Monday after a 2-0 road trip. They plan to practice today in advance of a home game Wednesday against Philadelphia.