Penguins’ Maatta impresses with how he’s handled tumor adversity
Lee Stempniak wasn’t in Pittsburgh long — about two months — but he didn’t need much time to form an opinion about defenseman Olli Maatta.
“He’s unflappable,” said Stempniak, a right wing with the New York Rangers. “The way he plays, the way he carries himself, what he does off the ice, everything is beyond his years.”
Maatta, 20, is on the verge of his finest performance. Two weeks removed from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid, Maatta seems likely to play Tuesday in Montreal.
If he does — a final decision will be made after the Penguins’ gameday skate at Bell Centre — it will come as a surprise to pretty much no one, including Maatta.
“Everyone thought it wouldn’t be this easy,” he said. “I’ve had no problems with it. I have to thank the doctors and team staff. They did a great job.”
So has Maatta, who plays a sport in which participants prefer to measure recovery time in minutes and periods rather than days or months.
“That’s something that hockey players pride themselves in: If you can move on the ice, you want to be out there and help your teammates,” Rangers forward Carl Hagelin said while discussing Maatta’s situation. “It’s pretty incredible that he’s back so soon.”
Coach Mike Johnston said after Monday’s practice at Consol Energy Center that he was waiting to talk to Maatta and trainer Chris Stewart.
“I want to hear that (Maatta) is sharp, that he’s feeling good,” Johnston said.
Prior to practice, Johnston said he told Maatta there would be plenty of battle drills, in which the Penguins work on clearing the crease and digging pucks out of corners. Maatta was a full participant.
“I want to get out there (in a game),” he said. “It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve played, so there’s some hunger there. I have to still take it easy, not rush it. We’ll see (Tuesday).”
So what happens to the defense when Maatta returns?
Kris Letang isn’t going anywhere. Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin make a combined $9 million and on Saturday played arguably their finest games this season. And Johnston seems to love the pairing of Rob Scuderi and Simon Despres, who have been together all season.
“They have great balance together,” Johnston said. “We’ve juggled a couple of the other (pairs) and probably still will. But we may not break up those two guys.”
That could leave Robert Bortuzzo as the seventh defenseman, but even that might be a tough call. In six games, Bortuzzo has a goal and two assists. He’s a plus-2 and has averaged 3.33 hits, tops on the team.
What is not debatable is how well Maatta has handled the adversity, something Stempniak thinks will benefit him in the long haul.
“He’s really calm and even-keel,” Stempniak said. “The ups and downs you go through throughout hockey and throughout your career, he’ll be able to weather a lot better than some other people.”