Niskanen takes it personally
Matt Niskanen, left, made it clear that the Penguins game tonight in Dallas is a lot more to him than just No. 63 of his team's 82 games this season.
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Matt Niskanen is not a guy who often draws attention to himself.
Doesn't happen much on the ice, where his work is solid, but rarely spectacular.
And it's more uncommon during interviews, when Niskanen tends to be soft-spoken and seldom utters so much as an inflammatory syllable.
But Niskanen made it clear that the Penguins game tonight in Dallas -- their first there since acquiring Niskanen and winger James Neal from the Stars last Feb. 21 -- is a lot more to him than just No. 63 of his team's 82 games this season.
- Matchup: Penguins at Dallas Stars, 7:38 p.m. today, American Airlines Center.
- TV, radio: NBC Sports Network, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Kari Lehtonen for Stars.
- Penguins: Are 16-13-3 on road, where they are 2-3-1 since All-Star break. ... Defenseman Zbynek Michalek doesn't have goal in his past 35 games. ... Are 13-5 in games decided by three or more goals.
- Stars: Have won four consecutive games, outscoring opponents, 13-4. ... C Mike Ribeiro has seven-game points streak. ... Are one of four teams not to allow short-handed goal at home.
- Hidden stat: Penguins are 23-3-3 when winning the special teams battle, 2-9 when losing it.
This one will be personal, at least a little, because Niskanen sees it as an opportunity to show his former bosses that he can perform at a level the Dallas front office and coaching staff appeared to conclude he wasn't going to reach.
"I'm not [upset with Stars general manager Joe] Nieuwendyk, because it turned out to be the right thing for me," Niskanen said Tuesday.
"But, at the same time, I think I'll have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, just playing ... [against] a team that kind of overlooked you in the end. Yeah, I think I'll have a chip on my shoulder."
Neal, conversely, said he does not have any hard feelings toward the Stars, if only because switching teams has worked out well for him. So well that he got a six-year, $30 million contract 10 days ago.
"I'm past [hard feelings]," he said. "I couldn't find myself in a better spot. I'd rather thank them for moving me, because it's such a great team here and such a good organization. I'm in an amazing spot."
The Stars, it should be noted, seem very much satisfied with their side of the deal. Defenseman Alex Goligoski, who was sent to Dallas for Neal and Niskanen, received a four-year, $18.4 million contract of his own not long ago.
Goligoski made his first trip to Consol Energy Center as a visitor Nov. 11. He left with a 3-1 loss and a broken thumb, courtesy of a shot by Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz, that forced him to miss 11 games.
While tonight likely won't be quite that miserable for Neal and Niskanen -- and it's hard to imagine how it could be -- they figure to experience many of the same feelings Goligoski did when he returned here as a member of another club.
"Obviously, I played a few years there, and it was my first NHL team," Neal said. "I'm sure it will be a little different going back and being on the opposite team."
Niskanen feels the same about returning to Dallas, although he put it a bit more succinctly: "It's going to be really weird."
Neal, widely regarded as part of the Stars' nucleus before the trade, said "it was a shock" to be sent away.
"I thought for sure I'd be there for a long time," he said. "But things sure do change in the matter of a phone call."
A similar phone call changed Niskanen's professional life, as well, although he wasn't completely surprised -- or upset -- to get it.
His pro career got off to a promising start when Dave Tippett was coaching the Stars, but his future darkened when Marc Crawford replaced Tippett.
"Before the coaching change, I think I was a big part of the [Stars] plans moving forward," Niskanen said. "My first two years, I was productive, and [then] the coaching changed happened.
"That was a part of my decline in play. Part of it was me, too. But once that happened, I slowly became the fifth guy, then down to the sixth guy, then an every-other-night kind of guy. I was slowly being put on the back burner."
After a good start with the Penguins a year ago, Niskanen was back there by the end of last season. He entered training camp with little, if any, job security, but long ago nailed up his spot in the lineup with reliable two-way play.
"It's been just a tremendous fit for me," Niskanen said. "It's kind of revived me. It's done wonders for my career and confidence."
His personal linescore -- three goals, 15 assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-8 in 61 games -- makes that point nicely. Almost as well as Neal's career-high 30 goals show how he has settled in with the Penguins.
And that kind of success appears to have taken a lot of the stress out of returning for the first time to the place that once was his professional home.
"It will be fun," Neal said. "I'm excited to go back."
First Published February 29, 2012 12:00 am