Niskanen earns keep on defense
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The Penguins roster of defensemen posed a problem when training camp opened last month: Too many players on NHL contracts.
Matt Niskanen, a 24-year-old who looked a step behind after being acquired from Dallas in February, seemed to be the most likely odd man out. Then, Niskanen started turning heads.
"I think he's surprising a lot of people, but I'm not so sure it's a surprise to him," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Friday.
Although injuries and a suspension delayed the decision of who will sit out among the seven defenseman, Niskanen has planted himself among the keepers.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:08 p.m. today, Air Canada Centre, Toronto.
- TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jonas Gustavsson for Maple Leafs.
- Penguins: Have won five in row. ... Are 5-2-1 vs. East. ... Evgeni Malkin has 35 points in 16 games vs. Toronto.
- Maple Leafs: Are 5-2-0 vs. East. ... Are 4-0-0 when allowing first goal. ... Defenseman Dion Phaneuf among NHL leaders in plus-minus at plus-7.
- Hidden stat: No Toronto player has had a hat trick vs. Penguins since Darryl Sittler in 1980.
Going into the game tonight at Toronto, Niskanen has a goal, three assists, a plus-minus rating of plus-3, 16 blocked shots and 16 hits through 12 games. His 24 shots are tied with Kris Letang for most among the club's defensemen. He has gotten time on the point on the power play.
In other words, Niskanen is looking more like the young player who had a strong first season and a half with the Stars than the player who then took a few steps back.
"My first two years I was pretty productive," Niskanen said. "I struggled for a couple of years for various reasons, but I'm just getting back to having that confidence and belief in what you're doing within the team system."
Niskanen had seven goals, 26 points and was a plus-22 as a rookie in 2007-08. The next season, he had six goals, 35 points but tailed off defensively as the season unfolded and was a minus-11.
Bylsma pointed out that Niskanen benefited from being paired with veteran Sergei Zubov.
"This guy put up an unbelievable year with Zubov being his partner and put up great numbers," Bylsma said. "He really had a great start to his career. He was trying to find that maybe the last two years."
One thing Niskanen has found is a system he likes and, now that he has settled in, understands. It requires the defensemen to retrieve the puck, quickly start the transition to offense and, if at all possible, join that offense.
"Just being more comfortable with the system allows me to be more aggressive," Niskanen said. "There's no indecision on what I'm doing. I'm making a hockey read, and you go with it aggressively. I've been trying to be aggressive, up in the play, trying to be involved in the offense. It's gone pretty well.
"It's a fun way to play. It's a lot better than sitting back on your heels and waiting for things to happen. I think it's the only way to play the game -- be aggressive, up the ice and always on the attack."
He meant with the puck, but Niskanen was ready for a different type of aggressive play Thursday.
In the third period of a 3-2 shootout win against the New York Islanders, Niskanen took exception to a move by P.A. Parenteau.
"He finished his check and followed through a little high, I thought, and got his gloves in my face and pushed my head up against the glass," Niskanen said. "It's an emotional sport. I got a little excited and went after him."
Niskanen threw down his gloves after shoving Parenteau to the ice. The fight never happened, but not because Niskanen was unwilling.
"When you go after somebody like that, you'd better be ready to [fight]," he said. "I was kind of ticked off at the moment and ready to confront him."
Parenteau and Niskanen each got a roughing minor, and New York's Blake Comeau got an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty at the same time.
"I didn't know at the time that [Parenteau] was getting a penalty, but we ended up with a power-play situation, so it worked out pretty good," Niskanen said.
Penguins fans might remember that Niskanen, still with Dallas, accepted a challenge from Penguins star center Sidney Crosby to trade punches coming out of a faceoff in a fight-filled, 5-2 Stars win in November in Dallas.
It wasn't a classic fight, but Crosby came out the winner when he used his strength to rag-doll Niskanen around.
Niskanen chuckled when that was brought up.
Fighting might never be close to a regular part of Niskanen's game, but there already are a lot of other components.
Those have surfaced since Niskanen returned from the offseason confident and ready to grab a regular spot.
"I think he had that mindset coming into camp, and it showed right from the start," Bylsma said. "He's been one of our more authoritative skaters. He's been really good in a lot of different areas, defensively and offensively."
First Published October 29, 2011 12:25 am