Joe Vitale, center, battles the Boston Bruins' David Krejci, left, and Matt Bartkowski for the puck in the first period in Boston on Dec. 7.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A week ago, Joe Vitale was learning a new position on the fly. Now look at the center-turned-right winger’s past three games with the Penguins:
He has an assist in each of the three games, a career-high streak. He has 11 hits. Although he is now on the third line with Brandon Sutter as the center, he is still taking some faceoffs and has won 11 of 13.
Is he blossoming?
“Blossoming? That’s a good word,” Vitale, 28, said with a grin after the 3-1 win Monday night against Toronto.
“I don’t know. With some of the guys banged up, there’s a little bit more opportunity for guys like me.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity, trying to be physical. The line’s going good right now.”
Chris Conner, the left winger on the line, and Sutter each had a goal against Toronto.
Vitale, previously the fourth-line center, has a goal, five points in his past eight games and, going into a game tonight against the Rangers in New York, has 10 points in 33 games. He’s four points shy of his career high for a season and one assist shy of his career best of 10.
“It’s not my focus,” Vitale said of the offense, “but, when you have a little success like that and you’re winning games, it’s all part of it.”
Sutter finds himself with speedsters on his wing on a line that was born of a long list of injuries and absences.
“I think it’s the biggest thing,” Vitale said of the speed.
“[Conner] and me, that’s probably our biggest attribute to how we play individually, and I think [Sutter] has been doing a great job working with that. [Conner] and me, we’re feeding off of each other as far as putting pucks in the right spots. It’s been good.”
He’s 27, not old
They might start calling Matt Niskanen “Graybeard” soon.
With the Penguins’ top four defensemen and five of their top eight missing Monday because of injuries or suspension, Niskanen was, by far, the team’s most veteran defenseman on the ice against the Maple Leafs.
“For most of my career, I’ve been the youngest,” said Niskanen, who preferred to be called not the oldest one standing but the “most experienced.”
“I still don’t feel that old,” he said. “I’m only 27.”
Niskanen has 445 NHL games on his resume. The other five who played Monday — Simon Despres (61 games), Robert Bortuzzo (40), rookie Olli Maatta (35), rookie Brian Dumoulin (two) and rookie Philip Samuelsson (one) have a combined 139 games of NHL experience.
Their average age is about 21.
Niskanen doesn’t mind being the oldest one helping — and watching — the newbies.
“It’s fun,” he said.
“These guys are promising young players. They’re going to be really good — they already are really good players, and they have a bright future.”
Later is better
Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who was leading the NHL with 47 points before Tuesday, has scored 10 of his 19 goals in the third period. That leads the league. Three of those 10 are winners. He also has an overtime goal, giving him a team-leading four winning goals.
With winger Jayson Megna, who got hurt Monday, unlikely to play against the Rangers and winger James Neal serving the final game of his five-game NHL suspension tonight, the Penguins recalled forward Brian Gibbons from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Gibbons got his first NHL goal during a call-up earlier this season. ... The suspension appeal hearing for Boston’s Shawn Thornton with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will take place Friday. Thornton was suspended for 15 games for attacking and injuring Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. … The Rangers are 1-3-1 so far on a record nine-game homestand.
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