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Penguins defenseman Maatta makes his return in win over Canadiens

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Olli Maatta.

MONTREAL — Defenseman Olli Maatta played well during the Penguins’ 4-0 win in Montreal on Tuesday, two weeks after having a cancerous lump surgically removed from his neck.

Doctors initially told Maatta he would miss four weeks.

“I was actually really nervous,” Maatta said. “I didn’t play too well at first. But I got more comfortable as the game went on.”

Maatta played on a pairing with Christian Ehrhoff. The 20-year-old played 20:14, the fourth-most ice time of any Penguins player against Montreal.

He last played Nov. 1 against Buffalo and had surgery three days later to remove the lump.

According to coach Mike Johnston, Maatta wanted to return to the lineup earlier.

“He probably could have played a couple of days earlier,” Johnston said. “He wanted to get his quickness and puck movement down. He’s looked really good in practice. He’s going to be ready to go. This is a big boost for our team.”

Maatta couldn’t stop smiling while speaking at his locker following the morning skate at Bell Centre.

“I just thank the doctors and the team staff for doing their best with me,” Maatta said. “I’m so excited to be back. I always wanted to come back as quickly as I could. I just wanted to get it over with.

“Now I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I can just play hockey again.”

Maatta received a less than a cordial welcome from the Canadiens.

On his first shift Tuesday, Matta was leveled on a hard, clean check from Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.

As usual, Maatta simply shrugged off the hit and finished his shift.

“Flower (Marc-Andre Fleury) saved me a little bit early,” Maatta said. “My mind was all over the place. But I finally relaxed.”

Penguins players and the coaching staff said they have been impressed with Maatta’s attitude. He learned during training camp that there was an 85 percent chance he had cancer.

Through it all, Maatta has remained composed, according to many in the organization.

“He’s not like many 20-year-olds I’ve ever met,” assistant coach Gary Agnew said. “He’s a really special kid.”

Maatta was reminded that he was making his return in Montreal, the hometown of cancer survivor Mario Lemieux, who returned to the lineup less than two months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and only hours following his final radiation treatment.

Another noteworthy case of a player returning from cancer took place in Montreal when Saku Koivu, then with the Canadiens, was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He returned to the lineup six months after the diagnosis.

Maatta declined to compare his situation with anything Lemieux or Koivu experienced.

“Cancer is a pretty scary word,” he said. “But you can’t really compare different kinds of cancers. Mine was found early. It was really pretty easy to (cure). It was just another bump on the road. Now it’s over with. I feel normal. I feel just like I did before.”

Maatta’s teammates were impressed with his performance against the Canadiens.

“What a special kid,” left wing Beau Bennett said. “He was awesome tonight.”

Maatta started the season on time despite dealing with summer shoulder surgery that was supposed to keep him out until November.

He and the Penguins hope his health troubles are a thing of the past.

“I just want to see him on the rink more and more,” Agnew said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s a heck of a kid and a heck of a hockey player.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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