Gene Collier: Finns pick a perfect time to join Penguins party

Wednesday night’s hockey show had a distinct air of formality, as though the Penguins and the Washington Capitals were to perform for 18,667 guests who RSVP’d weeks ago at the direction of embossed invitations.

The occasion was to be the Penguins’ 13th consecutive home victory, a franchise record. If hockey had red-white-and-blue bunting, I know where it would have been draped when the puck dropped.

Penguins vs. Capitals has long been a stick-to-the-ribs NHL staple in no need of accoutrements, its rich, detailed, sweat-soaked fabric woven around the vibrant careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and their D.C. archrival, Alexander Ovechkin.

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“I think that matchup has brought out the best in both teams in this series,” Crosby ventured after the morning skate. “And in [the three players], too.”

But Wednesday night, it brought out the best in a player of burgeoning promise who could impact the balance of power in this series for a very long time, principally because he was the youngest player on the ice.

Olli Maatta, 19, from Jyvaskyla, Finland, started the game by bailing out some floundering Penguins in the defensive zone and ended it with a wrister that floated past Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth with less than two minutes left in regulation for a 4-3 win.

In between, he made the sensational play in the offensive zone that put the Penguins back on their feet after repeated bouts of defensive indifference. Dan Bylsma’s guys, by their comportment and, for long stretches, by their play, performed nothing more compelling than the role of the confused host who comes in late and says something like, “Oh, that was tonight?”

Near the end of the second period, with Washington skating around with its second of three one-goal leads in the game, it looked like no one was going home with a part of Penguins history in their pocket, unless you were counting the first appearance in black and Vegas gold of Letourneau-Leblond and Drazenovic, which sounds like a phalanx of personal-injury lawyers but is actually a rugged winger, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (affectionately and practically referred to by the Penguins coaching staff as PL3) and center Nick Drazenovic, the 35th and 36th players to pull on a Penguins sweater in this injury-ravaged winter.

Were it not for that brilliant bit of offensive gamesmanship by Maatta, his teammates might have been content to skate off into the night and chalk up this rare subpar performance to the age-old first-game-back-after-a-long-road-trip excuse.

Maybe Maatta hasn’t learned that one yet.

His mates trailing, 2-1, Olli roared through the left faceoff circle and raised his hockey club as though he were going to shoot the puck to Sewickley, which is precisely why Capitals defenseman Tom Wilson, himself not five months older than Maatta, flopped on the ice to try and block Maatta’s impending cannonball. When Wilson did that, Maatta calmly slid the puck into the crease to Taylor Pyatt, who swept it past Neuvirth for a goal that made it 2-2, the goal that put the Penguins back on their feet.

It was Pyatt’s first goal in a Penguins uniform and his first anywhere, as Mike Lange might say, since the third-grade picnic. But even after that, the Penguins seemed comfortable standing around in their end as though they were waiting for someone to bring out a cake with a big 13 on it or something.

That’s how Ovechkin managed to invade the left circle, drop his stick, pick it up again and blister a perfect Marcus Johansson pass behind Marc-Andre Fleury for a 3-2 Washington lead. And that was also how Washington’s Jason Chimera was able to bury an early Johansson pass for a 2-1 Capitals lead.

Penguins defenseman Kris Letang had somehow managed to set a counterproductive defensive tone with a careless outlet pass that would eventually turn up on the stick of Brooks Laich, who beat Fleury for his fifth goal this season to make it 1-0 Washington.

But if anyone should have stuck around for cake with Olli after this landmark Penguins victory, it should have been the redoubtable Jussi Jokinen, Maatta’s fellow Finn and one of the major reasons the Penguins have been so deadly at home since Jokinen arrived in April 2013.

Jokinen’s tying goal, the one that pulled the Penguins even for the third time, was his 13th this season, and his 12th on home ice since he arrived from Carolina for a conditional draft pick last spring. In 27 games at Consol Energy Center, Jokinen has 21 points.

You might have come for Crosby and Ovechkin, but you got an eyeful of Maatta and Jokinen. The Penguins’ sixth consecutive icing of the Capitals certainly felt formal, but it was nothing like a formality.

Gene Collier:

Gene Collier: First Published January 16, 2014 12:13 AM

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