Joe Vitale went from off to off the charts Saturday night against Florida


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Joe Vitale was expected to have Saturday night off.

Didn't figure to do anything more strenuous than, say, fill a popcorn container in the press box at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

But that was before it was determined that Evgeni Malkin wouldn't be able to dress for the Penguins' game against the Florida Panthers.

Before Vitale logged 12 minutes and 39 seconds of ice time in a 3-1 victory. It was enough time to pick up an assist, tie for the team lead with five hits and go 13-4 on faceoffs, the best showing on draws by anyone on either team.

All of which earned a fairly glowing evaluation from coach Dan Bylsma, who said Monday that Vitale had "really played a great game, played a meaningful game. Was a big factor in the faceoff circle, the penalty-kill."

Vitale had dressed for just two of the previous eight games and acknowledged that the extended time off had had an impact.

"During the first period, I was out there for 45 seconds a couple of times," he said. "That's a pretty standard shift, but when you sit for that long, the lungs and the legs start burning a little bit too much."

That wasn't an issue as the game went along, and Vitale offered that his game is not the kind that suffers terribly when he's out of the lineup for a while.

"The style I play, how I play, it just comes down to energy and being physical," he said. "Almost every aspect of my game is completely in my control.

"Maybe more skilled guys, guys who need to see the ice pretty well and get the feel of it [suffer more from sitting]. Me, I pretty much just skate, hit, do all those things."

For all the Penguins have done in their first 42 games, there are a few more things they hope to accomplish in the six that remain, beginning with a visit Wednesday night from the Montreal Canadiens.

They would like to lock up the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Make a run at Chicago for first place in the overall standings. Flesh out the job descriptions of some players, getting them experience in some new roles, such as killing penalties.

And they would like to get players who aren't fixtures in the lineup -- forwards like Vitale and Dustin Jeffrey, or defensemen Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo -- into some games, so that if they're pressed into service during the playoffs, they will be prepared to contribute immediately.

"We feel like everybody is going to be needed and playing a role, as we go down the stretch and in the playoffs," Bylsma said.

The Penguins are carrying nine defensemen and when all are healthy -- at the moment, Paul Martin [hand] is the only one who isn't -- Bortuzzo is No. 9 on the depth chart.

He has appeared in just three of his past 19 games on the NHL roster -- he was on a conditioning assignment in Wilkes-Barre for two others -- but said that because he plays a no-frills game, protracted periods out of the lineup don't cause a serious problem.

"I think I could jump in there with no games [played before the regular season ends]," he said. "I did it at the start of the season and I did it when I played my last three games here.

"I keep myself mentally and physically ready to go. When called upon, I want to make an impression and help this team win."

That doesn't mean the transition back to active duty is instant and seamless.

"You forget how fast the game is played sometimes at this level," Bortuzzo said. "This level is incredibly fast, and that first period, maybe things are happening a little quick than you're used to after a long layoff.

"You can practice all you want, but when a guy is coming down on the forecheck pretty quick and trying to lay you out, you have to be ready."

Jeffrey's game has more of a finesse dimension than that of Vitale or Bortuzzo, and he conceded that his confidence when handling the puck and his ability to make snap decisions suffer when he goes for a significant period without playing. He has dressed for just one of the past eight games.

Nonetheless, he said, being idle for a few games -- or a few weeks -- is no excuse for faltering.

"It's my job to be ready," he said. "You're a professional athlete and you have to be ready to play whenever you're called upon, if you haven't played in five games or if you're playing every game.

"It makes it tougher sometimes when you're not playing, but it's a job. I keep myself ready and mentally prepared to be ready whenever the chance is."

Not a bad idea, because if the Penguins' playoff run lasts long enough, everyone on the roster might get one.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published April 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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