Matt Niskanen feeling right at home in role with Penguins

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Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen is in a good place.

"I feel comfortable, happy that everything's going well," Niskanen said. "I put in the work to get ready for camp. Camp went well. And now it's carried over to the first couple [of games]."

It's not often you see this kind of offense/defense balance: Niskanen's three assists give him the team lead in points, he's first on the team in plus-minus rating at plus-4, and he's tied for the team lead with seven blocked shots.

He's quick to point out that "it's only two games," but that's two games more than many outside the organization believed he would play for the Penguins this season.

In the offseason, Niskanen's name got the tennis-ball treatment -- smacked back and forth constantly as perceived trade bait so the defensemen-heavy Penguins could get under the salary cap and roster limit. Instead, he is filling in for injured top defenseman Kris Letang in a pairing with strong defensive defenseman Rob Scuderi.

Letang, who has what is believed to be a knee injury, is skating but has not practiced. He is eligible to come off of injured reserve today, but it seems unlikely he will be ready to return by tonight when Carolina visits Consol Energy Center.


Scouting report


  • Matchup:

    Penguins vs. Carolina Hurricanes, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.

  • TV, Radio:

    Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).

  • Probable goaltenders:

    Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Cam Ward for Hurricanes.

  • Penguins:

    Hold 7-1 scoring edge through two games. ... Are 0 for 4 on power play. ... Sidney Crosby, Chuck Kobasew and Craig Adams have each scored in both games.

  • Hurricanes:

    Are 3-8 vs. Penguins over past three seasons, 0-5 at Consol Energy Center. ... Are 1 for 7 on power play. ... Former Penguin Jordan Staal has no points and is minus-1.

  • Hidden stat:

    Penguins have won 19 games in a row, dating to last season, when they score at least three goals


Niskanen and Scuderi -- a member of the 2009 Penguins Stanley Cup team who re-signed with them over the summer -- never had played or practiced together before Letang got hurt at the end of training camp.

Still, it took not even a nanosecond to determine who would fill in for Letang.

"At that point, I think out of all the defenseman at camp, Matt Niskanen had been the best," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's been excellent. He's done a great job almost from day one in camp.

"So, when Kris Letang went down, I don't think there were any other options that we explored. It was going to be Matt Niskanen to go in with Rob Scuderi and form that pair."

Niskanen called Scuderi "very easy to play with," but being paired with him isn't the only reason Niskanen is so comfortable. For one thing, he's still with the Penguins.

"None of that talk was coming from the Penguins," Niskanen said of the trade debate. "It was media and fans. They love to pretend they're the GM. That's fine.

"I understood that it could happen, just with the salary-cap situation. And it still could. But I came in ready and I'm trying to help the team right now. I love being here. Every day is a privilege."

At 26, Niskanen is thriving in a Penguins system that rewards all components of his game.

As a young defenseman with Dallas, he had 26 and 35 points his first two NHL seasons, then fell to 15 points in 2009-10.

"Expectations got really high, and maybe I tried to force it a little bit," he said. "All of a sudden, your whole game is out of sync because you're worried about getting points.

"Now I'm just worried about trying to be a complete defenseman -- take what's there, play well all around and if I get points, great. In this lineup, if I play a good all-around game, then I'm probably going to get some points. Make good outlet passes, be in good position. If you have a shot, take it."

Niskanen, acquired by the Penguins in a February 2011 trade, likes his mix of responsibilities. He gets some time on the point on the power play. He can be part of a rush or other offensive surges. And he's playing sound defense -- something the whole team is emphasizing.

In addition to blocking shots, Niskanen has taken to heart a directive for defensemen to collapse more around the Penguins net. He and Scuderi have, at times, been stationed there, whisking away loose pucks and rebounds.

"I like it," he said of tweaks in the defensive scheme that date to last season and have been highly noticeable in the 2-0 start.

"It's a good team game that way. It's a five-man group defending, and then it's a five-man group moving up the ice together trying to create something, whether it be a forecheck or a rush chance. Through the first two games, it's been really solid.

"When we don't have the puck, we're not cheating as much, hoping for a chance to go on a rush. We're not always trying to hit the home-run play. We're making sure we have full control of the puck before we start heading up ice."

It's not clear how Letang's return will impact Niskanen's assignment. He's not thinking too far ahead.

"Can't wait for [Letang] to get back, but, in the meantime, I'll enjoy having more chances," Niskanen said.

NOTES -- Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was named the NHL's No. 3 star for the first week of the season. He was 2-0, allowing just one goal with a .979 save percentage. ... Boston College and Bowling Green have been added to the lineup, along with regulars Robert Morris and Penn State, for the Three Rivers Classic college tournament, Dec. 27-28 at Consol Energy Center.

penguins

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM


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