Olli Maatta’s superb defensive skill has been on display since the puck dropped in the Penguins regular-season opener on Oct. 3. On Saturday afternoon, it was Maatta’s scoring touch that lifted him into the spotlight.
Maatta, 19, notched his first-career NHL goal at 13:12 of the third period, and it could not have come at a better time.
Crosby entered the zone along the right wall as Maatta joined the rush without hesitation and split the Canucks defensive pair on a ‘center drive.’ Crosby dished to Kunitz on the opposite wall and the forward quickly fired a shot on net. Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo was unable to corral the quick wrist shot from Kunitz and Maatta was there to clean up the rebound, sliding the puck around the outstretched pad of Luongo and knotting the game at 3-3.
Maatta looked more like a seasoned-veteran forward on the rush with Crosby and Kunitz, having the wherewithal to drive to the net, keep the blade of his stick on the ice and be in a position to slam any rebound opportunity home.
“It was the right play,” Crosby said. “It’s always fun to see a guy score their first goal. That never gets old. Seeing the joy and how happy he was, it was pretty cool. And it was a big goal for us, too.”
Maatta, who was congratulated by owner Mario Lemieux and a host of others in the locker room, said jumping into the rush is something he likes doing.
“It was a three-on-two and when you have that you are just trying to rush, that is part of being a defenseman,” a smiling Maatta said after the game. “It was a good play, a good three-on-two by (Crosby) and (Kunitz) and I just tapped it in.”
The Finnish product earned a roster spot out of camp with his smooth skating and responsible defensive skills and continues to make a case that he deserves to stay at the NHL level.
“I feel like every game I have gotten more confident and comfortable out there,” Maatta said. “Today, I felt good.”
After playing in his eighth-straight game on Saturday, the Penguins will be forced to make a decision after the next contest Maatta plays. If Maatta plays in more than nine games this season with Pittsburgh, the first year of his entry-level contract kicks in.
Maatta can be returned to his junior team – the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League – at any time after the 10 games, but he will be under contract for one less year. And if he is returned to London, he cannot be brought back to Pittsburgh.
So the Penguins must decided whether or not to keep Maatta on their NHL roster beyond his nine-game window.
Head coach Dan Bylsma told media prior to the game that “no decision has been made” yet on Maatta’s status with the Penguins.
Bylsma said postgame the play by Maatta wasn’t the first time he showed the smarts to join the rush, citing the crossbar he hit on an odd-man rush in the first period.
“It was a big point in the game,” Bylsma said. “We got a great play on the wall by (Crosby) and turned it into an odd-man situation with him jumping up into the play there. Fortunately for us, he gets a second chance at the net, going to the cage there and gets a huge goal for us.”
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