Defenseman Niskanen shaping his best season

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Matt Niskanen’s third-period goal Monday didn’t stand as his sixth winner of the season. Not hardly.

It wasn’t even significant to the outcome. Not when the Penguins got smacked by the Florida Panthers, 5-1.

But it was Niskanen’s seventh goal, matching his career high with 33 games remaining this season.

Niskanen, 27, has rounded into a reliable, versatile defenseman for the Penguins, but he’s not categorized as an offensive defenseman.

He has, however, developed a knack for getting shots through what can be a minefield of sticks, legs and bodies in front of the opposing goaltender.

Going into a game tonight against the Montreal Canadiens at Consol Energy Center, Niskanen has equaled the seven goals, 26 points he put up in a stellar rookie season (2007-08) with Dallas. He has at least one point in 12 of the Penguins’ past 14 games.

He had no winning goals that rookie season, and only four through his first six seasons. His five this season have him leading the Penguins and all NHL defensemen.

Niskanen was a first-round pick by the Stars in the 2005 NHL draft and was something of a sensation that rookie season, which he started as a 20-year-old. His plus-minus was plus-22.

He upped his point total to 35 the next season, but his plus-minus plummeted to minus-11. Things sputtered some for him until the Penguins traded for him in February 2011.

This season, he is not only on pace for his best season offensively, but he also was tied for the league plus-minus lead at plus-25 before games Tuesday.

Asked to explain how he is getting shots through — and past the goalie —Niskanen deferred to the Penguins’ overall plan of having forwards feed the puck to defensemen as a way of opening things up a little.

“Just the way teams play defense now — everyone packs it in around the net —it’s tough for forwards to create space or have space to do anything on their own,” Niskanen said. “You have to spread them out a bit.”

Even then, it can be difficult to launch a shot that isn’t blocked or stopped by the goalie.

“The best way to do it is, [the forwards] pass it low to high to us,” Niskanen said. “And [the idea] is just to get it on net real quick, before they get set up. Even forwards are good at almost playing goalie. They’re in your way. You can’t shoot it by them.”

Yet Niskanen has, six times since Dec. 19.

Five of his seven goals have been one-timers. Here’s a look at his goals this season:

• Oct. 12 against Tampa Bay, a one-timer from center Evgeni Malkin for a power-play goal.

• Dec. 19 against Minnesota, a one-timer after a pass from winger Jussi Jokinen for a power-play goal.

• Dec. 21 against Calgary, he scored on a quick wrist shot after taking a pass from center Sidney Crosby.

• Dec. 31 against New Jersey, Crosby set up Niskanen for a one-timer.

• Jan. 5 against Winnipeg, he scored on a one-timer from defense partner Olli Maatta.

• Jan. 19 against Calgary, he won the game when he showed some patience with the puck, backing up along the right-wing boards before launching a wrist shot.

• Last Wednesday against Washington, he scored on a one-timer after a pass from defenseman Kris Letang.

Although all Penguins defensemen are encouraged to join the offense, Niskanen’s goals have come from longer range — the point, the top of the circle.

With the possible exception of the Jan. 19 winner in Calgary, he hasn’t flashed a lot of moves on his goals. Maatta, a rookie, has that skill.

In the 4-3 victory Wednesday against Washington, Maatta used a deft pump-fake to make a pass to set up winger Taylor Pyatt’s goal, then scored the winner on a similar move. That’s a different style.

“Different skill set, too,” Niskanen said, smiling. “I’ve got a little bit of that in my playbook. Not as much as he does, though. He’s pretty good at deception. He can move laterally. Move a guy and then just take a step and he has a lane. He’s got a good knack for that, a good feel for that.”

Niskanen’s goals don’t look like that.

“A few of them have been one-timers. For me, that’s usually how I score,” he said. “You can’t get it off any quicker than when you one-time it. When you’re able to one-time a puck, I think that’s the best thing to do. Just pound it right away. That’s your best chance to score.

“The wristers from 60 feet, those are kind of lucky. A lot of times defensemen knock those down. And, if the goalie sees it, he’s stopping it for sure.”

Shelly Anderson:, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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