New Penguin Taylor Pyatt skates in a game against the New York Rangers earlier this month.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins had a specific niche in mind for Taylor Pyatt when they claimed him Jan. 2 off waivers from the New York Rangers. And it had nothing to do with stepping into a top-six role.
Rather, the Penguins brought in Pyatt because they felt he could be an effective third-liner, a big-body winger who would be responsible in his own end and hand out an occasional hit.
Seemed perfectly reasonable, given that Pyatt is 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds and, at 32, has pretty well established what he can be counted on to contribute. But, like so many things the Penguins have hoped to do this season, their plan for Pyatt barely had reached the embryonic stage when an injury forced it to be altered.
After five games with the Penguins -- barely enough time to learn the names of his teammates, let alone figure out how they like to play -- Pyatt was bumped up to the second line when right winger James Neal had to sit out a game Wednesday against Washington because of an unspecified injury.
No one anticipated a seamless transition or expected Pyatt to make people forget that Neal wasn't in uniform -- after all, Neal has become one of the NHL's most lethal goal-scorers and has an extraordinary chemistry with center Evgeni Malkin -- but Pyatt's bosses and teammates couldn't have been more pleased with how he handled his upgraded duties.
Pyatt logged 14 minutes and 56 seconds of ice time -- his previous high since joining the Penguins had been 13:58 in Calgary a week ago -- and scored the Penguins' third goal. He also recorded five hits, one off the team lead.
Coach Dan Bylsma said, "I thought it was his best game for our team." and Pyatt didn't disagree.
"Whenever you score, it always feels pretty good," he said. "It feels like you've had a strong game. I got a chance to play a lot. I'm starting to feel a little more comfortable with our system, what we're doing out there."
Critical as Pyatt's goal was -- it rallied the Penguins from a one-goal deficit for the third and final time that night -- his most important play might have been one that came with no statistical reward, at least for him.
That didn't seem to bother Pyatt much, though, because he made it possible for rookie defenseman Olli Maatta to score his first winning goal in the NHL.
With the score tied, 3-3, and about two minutes left in regulation, Pyatt went to the front of the Washington net and planted himself in front of goalie Michal Neuvirth. He stayed there until Maatta's shot from the top of the left circle hit the net behind Neuvirth, who would have needed X-ray vision to have any chance of locating the puck once Maatta launched it.
Which means that, even though Pyatt wasn't credited with an assist, his contribution to the goal couldn't have been more obvious.
"The goalie has no eyes, can't see anything," Bylsma said. "[Maatta's goal is] made possible because Taylor is a big body in front."
Pyatt's stint on a line with Malkin and Jussi Jokinen undoubtedly was a cameo appearance. There's no indication that Neal's injury is particularly serious -- he had said Wednesday morning that he hoped to dress for the Capitals game that night -- and he certainly will reclaim his place on the No. 2 line when he returns to the lineup.
Nonetheless, Pyatt took full advantage of the opportunity Neal's absence created for him, and presumably would get a chance to do it again if circumstances made it necessary. Which, given the Penguins' miserable luck with injuries this season, hardly can be ruled out.
"It was a great opportunity for me to play with a great player like Malkin, and Jussi Jokinen on the other wing," Pyatt said.
"I just tried to play hard, play my game, be strong on the puck and get around the net as much as possible. It felt good to contribute and feel like a part of the team."
Even though it wasn't the part Pyatt was expected to be.
NOTES -- The Penguins have set a franchise record by winning 13 home games in a row but remain 10 shy of the NHL mark set by Detroit two seasons ago. ... The Penguins, off the past two days, are scheduled to practice at 11 a.m. today at Consol Energy Center.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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