Penguins' Niskanen jumps right in
NEWARK, N.J. -- Some said at the time that Matt Niskanen was little more than a throw-in for the trade between the Penguins and Dallas.
Others suggested that the Penguins actually had been forced to take Niskanen as a condition of completing the deal because the Stars were intent on shedding his salary.
And now, there are those who believe the Penguins should be surprised by how effective Niskanen has been in his first four games with them.
Oh, maybe -- maybe -- Niskanen has adapted to his new team and surroundings a bit faster than some in the organization might have anticipated, but general manager Ray Shero knew he wanted to get a defenseman back if he parted with Alex Goligoski, and had some separate discussions with the Stars about Niskanen.
So, when the talk shifted to which defenseman Dallas might send as part of the James Neal-Goligoski swap, Niskanen's name naturally came up in the conversation. And Shero made certain it stayed there until the deal was finalized.
Game: Penguins at New Jersey Devils, 7:08 p.m. today, Prudential Center.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: Brent Johnson for Penguins, Martin Brodeur for Devils.
Penguins: Are 17-11-4 on road, including 1-1 mark in Newark. ... LW Matt Cooke needs two points for 300 in career. ... Have 25-6-3 record when getting first goal of game.
Devils: Are on 10-0-1 roll at home. ... LW Ilya Kovalchuk is tied for NHL lead with eight game-winning goals. ... Have allowed just one power-play goal in past nine games.
Of note: Devils are 15-7-4 in games decided by one goal.
Neal was the centerpiece of the deal for the Penguins and has done a lot of good things -- usually, with a heavy impact involved -- but seems to be showing a bit of the strain stemming from his inability to get a goal.
That's understandable, considering that he's widely regarded as the goal-scoring winger they've craved for several years.
Niskanen is under no such pressure. Partly because goal-scoring is a secondary facet of his job description, partly because he already has one as the Penguins prepare to face New Jersey at 7:08 p.m. today at the Prudential Center.
Niskanen scored the Penguins' first goal in their 3-2 overtime loss in Toronto Wednesday night, then set up their second with a superb lead pass to Chris Conner, who converted on a breakaway.
While the Penguins obviously aren't going to count on him to chip in a couple of points in every game, Niskanen's skating ability and offensive talents had a lot to do with their interest in him.
"His mobility is very good," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works with the defensemen.
"He does a good job of getting shots through from the blue line."
Niskanen agreed that "the style of play these guys want to play fits into my game," and acknowledged that he felt comfortable with his new team almost immediately.
"There's still an adjustment period, but it's gone pretty smoothly so far," he said.
Fact is, Niskanen seems to get more confident and efficient with each game. Maybe each period.
"I think I've gotten just a little bit better each game," he said.
"I'm feeling more comfortable, and I know what's going on."
So far, no one has postulated that Niskanen's work has anything to do with "tiger blood and Adonis DNA" and he's not going to supplant Kris Letang as the featured performer on the Penguins blue line. Still, he has been responsible and productive at both ends of the rink.
That wasn't always the case in Dallas, where belief in his abilities wasn't even a trace element in Niskanen's game by the time he was traded.
"For one reason or another, it wasn't working there," he said. "I lost my confidence. Especially the offensive part of my game wasn't there for me. It wasn't like I wasn't trying, but it just wasn't clicking.
"It seems like since I got here, it's almost been like a breath of fresh air. Things just seemed to click right away."
Niskanen deserves most of the credit for that, of course, but the coaching staff has contributed, too.
"We've spent a lot of time before practice and after practice and during practices working on details of the game," Reirden said. "He's put the time and effort in, learning how we want to do things.
"You want to put [players] in a situation to succeed. A player who's not confident going out there is not going to make a whole lot of good things happen.
"We're going to give him the tools to have success. Where he takes that from there is up to him."
First Published March 4, 2011 12:00 am