Healthy scratch serves as motivation for Penguins' Vitale



BOSTON -- Joe Vitale is a pretty agreeable guy.

Smiles easily and often. Has a healthy perspective on the game and his place in it.

Ask him to fill almost -- almost -- any role on your hockey team, and he will embrace it.

With gusto.

And one glaring exception.

Vitale will gladly center a fourth line, as he figures to do when the Penguins face Boston tonight at TD Garden. He will kill penalties. He will block shots and launch his body into opponents at nearly every opportunity.

Scouting report
 
Matchup: Penguins vs. Boston Bruins, 7:08 p.m. today, TD Garden, Boston.

TV, Radio: Root Sports; WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Tuukka Rask for Bruins.

Penguins: Have won six consecutive regular-season games at TD Garden and are 9-3-1 in past 13 visits. ... D Brooks Orpik has scored three of his 12 career goals against Bruins. ... Power play is tied for fifth in NHL with 22.4 percent conversion rate.
Bruins: Are 9-3-2 at home, including 6-0-2 in past eight games there. ... Rask has allowed one or zero goals 11 times this season. ... Have gone 6-0 in games decided by three or more goals.
Hidden stat: All five of Boston's games that have gone to overtime or a shootout this season have ended 3-2.

But he can't do any of that in street clothes, which is why Vitale finds it so exasperating when he must sit out a game as a healthy scratch.

"I don't like it," he said. "I get aggravated. I get frustrated with myself.

"It's obviously an executive decision, and you stand by the executives, behind their decision, and I respect them for their decision. I mostly just take it upon myself.

"I don't ever try to play the blame game. I don't try to act like, ... 'This guy doesn't like me.'

"It's about looking at myself, and 'What can I do better in my game?' "

Vitale has been held out of a game just once this season -- a 4-1 loss nine days ago at New Jersey -- and responded to it with an excellent showing in the next game. He recorded four hits, an assist and a blocked shot in a little more than 10 minutes of work in a 3-1 victory against Anaheim 48 hours later.

Vitale recoils from a suggestion that he has a history of doing some of his best work in games immediately after one in which he was held out, but his performance against the Ducks is further evidence.

"He was very effective, very physical," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who works with the forwards. "He got in on the forecheck, his line had some big shifts for us to kind of turn the tide in the game.

"His response coming back ... he certainly impacted the game in a favorable way for us."

Although Vitale and his linemates did that pretty often in the early weeks of the season, Granato said Vitale began to stray from the style that makes him an effective bottom-six center.

Eventually, that led to Vitale sitting out against the Devils.

"He wasn't quite as physical, wasn't quite as reliable defensively," Granato said. "There were a few things that went into it. His overall game dropped a bit.

"His play was inconsistent. That's one thing you need out of his line and his performance -- consistency.

"We need to have Joey being physical, being fast on the forecheck, being a guy who can create some offense for us by outworking teams in the offensive zone. We had a lot of games in that stretch where he wasn't being real effective in those situations."

Consequently, Zach Sill moved into Vitale's spot for the game in New Jersey.

That move served to reward Sill for his strong play in the American Hockey League and remind Vitale of what he must to do to retain his place in the lineup.

"The fortunate thing is, we have numbers up here to give somebody else a chance to get some minutes," Granato said. "And, in [Vitale's] situation, to reflect and get back into the game and get back to doing the basic things to help our team win."

Vitale realizes he must handle those blue-collar duties effectively not only to contribute to the Penguins' success, but to create a measure of job security for himself.

With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter ahead of him on the depth chart, the only way Vitale could expect to move -- barring injuries -- is down. Which would drop him out of the group of 12 forwards who dress for each game.

Consequently, throwing his game into neutral for a shift or two, let alone an entire game, simply isn't an option.

"I've always felt, since I've been there, that I've kind of needed to prove myself on a daily basis or I don't play," Vitale said. "That's just the reality of the situation.

"I think it's mostly positive. I try to see the positive in it, to know that every day you have to come out ready to go and fresh, because there's always someone trying to take your job. Obviously there's stress that comes along with that, and I have to deal with it."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.

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