Penguins notebook: Vitale finds new position, role on third line

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At 28, Joe Vitale is learning something new in his NHL career.

"I really never played wing in my career," he said. "This is the first time I've ever consistently played wing."

Normally the Penguins' fourth-line center, Vitale took some shifts on the top line with Sidney Crosby last week after Pascal Dupuis left the game against San Jose. Vitale got an assist as that line was on the ice for the final goal, scored by defenseman Kris Letang, in a 5-1 win.

"We had some success, I think," Vitale said, but he didn't figure the reassignment would be anything lasting.

Dupuis came back the next game, but Andrew Ebbett broke an ankle while blocking a shot late in the game against the Sharks and is out indefinitely.

Vitale has moved into the spot Ebbett held, third-line right winger alongside center Brandon Sutter and right winger Chris Conner. Zach Sill is filling the fourth-line center role.

"Not as tough on the lungs," Vitale said of playing the wing rather than center. "[Defensive] zone is tricky because it's a lot more positional. Wall play coming out of the [defensive] zone is really important, too. Center, you're always supporting, kind the rover."

Vitale is "thankful for the opportunity" to move to the third line and give right wing a try, but he's still learning on the job.

"I have the basics, but the best way to learn is to do it," he said. "You're going to make mistakes. I made a couple coming out of the [defensive] zone [Monday against Columbus]. You learn from that and try to move on and do your best the next game."

Catching a break, at last

The win Monday against Columbus was the Penguins' fourth game in six days.

It was also their 15th game in 27 days, with no more than two home games or two road games in a row. There were 14 flights in that stretch.

So having three days in a row at home without a game -- they practiced Tuesday, had a day off Wednesday and will practice again today -- provides a welcome respite.

"Oh, it's nice. It's really nice," Sutter said. "We've had quite the stretch the last month. It seems like we've been playing every other day.

"It's tough because it seems like it was home one game, road the next. It was never a road trip and then home for a while. It's nice to have a few days at home to relax, hang out with each other, or guys with their families. I'm sure guys will get the most out of it."

Sutter hesitated when asked if this three-day stretch provided a better break mentally or physically.

"Definitely both, but mentally's probably the biggest one," he said.

The break ends Friday when New Jersey visits Consol Energy Center. That will be the first of seven games in an 11-day stretch going into the NHL-mandated Christmas break.

Maatta's priorities clear

Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta, 19, was eligible to play for his native Finland in the IIHF world junior championships, but he is not disappointed he won't be going to Sweden for that tournament.

The Penguins take precedence.

"I'm part of the team," said Maatta, who has a goal and six assists while playing regularly.

"I'd miss games if I went to world juniors. The NHL is my first priority right now."

Maatta won't have to miss any Penguins games if he is invited to play in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The NHL will shut down for nearly three weeks in February for the Games.

That idea appeals to Maatta, but he's not doing cartwheels yet.

"If I get a chance, yeah, I'd like to go," he said.

Tip-ins

Dan McCoy, 19, of Cheswick, survived the final cut and will be part of the United States Paralympic sled hockey team that will compete in Sochi, Russia. McCoy, a forward, was part of the national team that won a silver medal at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Sled Hockey World Championship. ... The Penguins Friday will reveal the jerseys they will wear as part of the NHL's outdoor Stadium Series. They will play the Chicago Blackhawks March 1 at Soldier Field.

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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