With Maatta and Schultz out, Penguins must address battered blue line
Maatta will miss six weeks after hand surgery; Schultz is in concussion protocol
February 17, 2017 11:57 PM
Olli Maatta is projected to return in late March.
By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Penguins’ 4-3 overtime win Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets turned out to be a costly one on the back end.
Hours after the Penguins announced that Olli Maatta would miss six weeks after successful hand surgery, coach Mike Sullivan said before a game Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena that Justin Schultz was in concussion protocol.
The injuries forced the Penguins to call up Cameron Gaunce and Steve Oleksy from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Oleksy started the game on a pairing with Ian Cole, while Gaunce was a healthy scratch.
“They’re strong kids,” Sullivan said of Gaunce and Oleksy. “They’re good in front of our net. They’re strong underneath the hashmarks. They defend hard, and they have a steady simplicity to their game that I think helps us.”
Maatta absorbed a hit from Jets center Adam Lowry. Schultz was crunched into the boards by defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. Both were ugly and toed the line of legality, although Sullivan didn’t care to levy an opinion on either.
“It really doesn’t matter what our opinion is on it,” Sullivan said. “We’re just going to play the game hard. We’re going to play the game the right way.”
The Penguins played more than half of that Thursday game with only four defensemen, at one point killing a penalty with three.
Maatta, 22, has endured an up-and-down season, but he played arguably his best game of 2016-17 Tuesday against Vancouver.
Schultz could leave an even bigger hole if he’s forced to miss any significant time; he’s in the midst of a breakout year with 9 goals, 39 points and a plus/minus rating of plus-31.
That point total ranks Schultz sixth among NHL defensemen. Only two defensemen have a better plus/minus rating.
The losses could ramp up the importance of general manager Jim Rutherford acquiring a depth defenseman by the March 1 trade deadline, a situation Rutherford has said he’ll monitor, but Sullivan said that’s not something he’s thinking about.
The Penguins are 13-0-2 this season when their top six defensemen are healthy.
“We have a group of players here that we’re coaching,” Sullivan said. “That’s where our focus is. Right now, the players that we have is our team. We’re going to coach them as such. We’ll take each game as it comes and go from there.”
Perhaps, the most interesting move in all this was the one the Penguins didn’t make, as Derrick Pouliot remains in the minors.
His game has improved, Sullivan said, but that’s exactly why they didn’t want to call him up — to allow him additional time for development.
“We think Derrick’s game is really coming down there,” Sullivan said. “We think it’s important that he continues to gain that traction.
“We’ve had him up and down a fair amount here over the last year-plus. We just felt as though — and the discussion that we had — was that he’s really gaining some positive traction down there. We didn’t want to disrupt that.”
‘Fine line’ on Malkin
Sullivan doesn’t want to stifle the emotion with which Evgeni Malkin plays, fully aware that it’s one of the things that makes him one of the best hockey players on the planet.
The key, Sullivan noted about 24 hours before Malkin seemed to add “enforcer” to his job description in a chippy game against the Jets, is staying out of the penalty box.
“There’s a fine line,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want him to be in the penalty box. He’s too valuable for us on the ice. We want to make sure that we keep him on the ice as best we can. But he’s an emotional player and he plays the game hard. That’s a part of it.
“I think Geno is playing extremely well right now. He’s playing a hard game. As long as he’s doing that and maintains a level of discipline when he can, then he’s going to help us win.”
Hagelin makes return
Left winger Carl Hagelin returned from a five-game absence because of a concussion.
Hagelin progressed through the skating-with-teammates part of his recovery quickly.
He was on the ice Tuesday wearing a yellow, non-contact jersey, took some contact at the Thursday morning skate and played Friday.
He started the game on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist.
With Hagelin’s return to the lineup, Carter Rowney wound up in the press box as a healthy scratch.
Hagelin’s return led Sullivan to tweak his bottom six. He returned Matt Cullen to center, between Tom Kuhnhackl and Eric Fehr on the fourth line. The third line was Nick Bonino flanked by Scott Wilson and Phil Kessel.
This ’n ’at
A 7-year-old female hockey player from Pittsburgh made history Friday. Cora Dwyer became the 107,723rd 8-and-under player to join USA Hockey in 2016-17, setting a single-season 8-U participation record. … The NHL announced that OneRepublic will perform in the first intermission of the Penguins’ Feb. 25 Stadium Series game against thePhiladelphia Flyers at Heinz Field. … The NHL also announced Thursday that the Penguins players on the NHL 100 list — Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Bryan Trottier and Ron Francis, in addition to Sidney Crosby — will be recognized in a ceremony in the second intermission.
Jason Mackey: email@example.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
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