For the Pittsburgh Penguins’ struggling defensive corps, as the saying goes, sometimes when a door closes, a window opens.
Tuesday, 21-year-old blueliner Olli Maatta added to the bad-luck streak that’s hampered his highly promising career so far when Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter collided with him as he made his way off the ice. The door to the bench was open, catching Maatta awkwardly and sending him to the hospital with concerns of internal organ damage.
Maatta was released the following day, thankfully with no internal injuries but a muscular one that will sideline him for 3-4 weeks. It was a tough blow for a Penguins’ defense where, even at Maatta’s young age, he arguably ranks as No. 2 behind Kris Letang, with whom he’d recently been reunited as a pair.
In Maatta’s absence, the Penguins were forced to shuffle their pairings, and early results Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche looked promising.
Adam Clendening, the 23-year-old defenseman who was part of the Brandon Sutter trade with Vancouver, finally found his way back out of the press box and onto the ice. With his ability to move the puck, Clendening is a natural fit in head coach Mike Johnston’s system, which looks to the defense for strong zone entries, and he helped the Penguins generate offense in their 4-3 win, finishing at +1 with four shot attempts, two takeaways, one giveaway and a blocked shot.
“I feel good. Puck movement’s been good, moving my feet during rushes,” Clendening said. “It’s a pretty friendly system for my style of game, so I enjoy it. The forwards are so skilled, you just get it in their hands and get open, chances are it’s coming back.”
Letang was paired with veteran Rob Scuderi, whose reputation as a shutdown defenseman – even if he hasn’t played like one as often in his second tenure with the team – may help Letang regain the confidence to play like himself. The star offensive-minded defenseman has struggled to a -11 this season, much of it alongside Ian Cole, a capable blueliner but ill-fitting partner to Letang’s skill set.
In two games with Scuderi, Letang hasn’t helped his plus/minus – Thursday he was even, while Saturday he was a -2 in a 3-1 loss to San Jose – but he’s generating chances, with seven shot attempts in both contests.
“I thought Scuds was really poised tonight; I liked the way he played the game,” Johnston said after the win over the Avalanche. “I like Scuds and Tanger as a pair, just because Tanger even felt there was a good safety valve there all the time, and that’s what Scuds provides.”
And the very steady Brian Dumoulin, who’s quietly continued to impress since his recall during last year’s injury-plagued spring, has been tasked, alongside Ben Lovejoy, with shutting down the opposition.
“We both want that to be our identity,” Dumoulin said. “We really want, game after game, for us to focus on defense, to focus on doing that job and shutting that team down, and let the offense take care of itself. We look forward to matching against top lines.”
“They’ve had a lot of top matchups over the last couple weeks,” Johnston said. “What we like about that pair is that both are very solid defensively. They’re physical, but they don’t get tangled up so that they lose position. A guy like [Colorado’s Matt] Duchene down low, he spins off checks; he’s a hard guy to handle. So you’ve got to be a very good positional defenseman with a real good stick, and both those guys are.”
Although the Penguins lost Saturday to their former steadiest defenseman, Paul Martin, and the Sharks, they recorded a season-high 39 shots on goal, with San Jose’s 22 blocks key to securing the win. If Pittsburgh’s new-look defense can continue to jump-start the offense, it will go a long way toward helping the Penguins achieve the kind of numbers they expected with their collection of star forwards, as opposed to being in the league’s bottom five in goals-for.
“We didn’t do enough offensively to generate some chances, and that goes for the defense, too,” Scuderi said. “I thought we missed some chances to pinch and keep some pucks alive for our forwards.”
“[San Jose] had more shot attempts from the blueline that got through, and that’s where we really have to work with our defense,” Johnston said. “We have to be better moving along the line, better at finding lanes, better at getting our shots through. A lot of times you don’t have time for the slapshot, [so] you get the wrist shot through; you just get it to the net area. I thought they were better than us at that part of the game tonight. For me, it was all about [creating] those second-chance opportunities.”