CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Olli Maatta is smiling. Like really, really smiling.
He’s talking about his parents, Tiina and Jarri, making the trip over from Finland along with his two brothers. They are here to see Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday. They are here for what could be the biggest night of his life.
This aspect of trying to win a championship is often overlooked – there is a serious challenge to be found in the level of expectation that hangs over a potential clinching game. Sidney Crosby joked Wednesday that his hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S., is currently on “high alert” and across the pond in Jyvaskyla, Finland the mood is no different.
“There’s lots of noise around us,” said Maatta. “It’s not easy.”
If you were betting on someone drowning out the sound you’d be wise to pick the Finnish defenceman.
We’re talking about a 21-year-old who has already beaten cancer, survived two shoulder surgeries and a vicious kidney bruise, suffered a head injury in Round 2 and endured a pair of healthy scratches in Round 3, and still managed to be among Pittsburgh’s best performers during the Stanley Cup Final.
“The guy’s been through some absolute life-changing situations, and he’s handled them like an absolute professional and like the absolute fantastic guy that he is,” beamed teammate Ian Cole.
In many ways, Maatta embodies what these Penguins are all about.
He’s fought through so many obstacles and setbacks and come out better for it on the other side. His play since re-entering the lineup during the Eastern Conference final stands out because it is markedly better than where he was at earlier in the post-season.
It’s helped the Penguins get within one victory of glory despite boasting a no-name defence corps beyond No. 1 man Kris Letang. Well, more accurately, they have names – just not ones most would expect to form a successful unit on this stage: Dumoulin, Cole, Lovejoy, Schultz and Maatta.
That group hasn’t skipped a beat since Trevor Daley went down with a broken ankle last round in large part because of Maatta’s contributions. He has six assists in the seven biggest games he’s ever played.
“The main thing is the mindset I’ve gone into games with,” Maatta explained. “Just not overthink it. If you’re a little hesitant out there it’s a quick game. My mind’s been just ‘go out there and play.’ No matter what happens, just go and play – play with your instincts.”
Now is not the time for Maatta to reflect on everything he’s been through along the way, but he does acknowledge that last summer was a tough one for him.
Sandwiched around his shoulder injuries was the cancer diagnosis in October 2014. A tumour was located in his thyroid and removed surgically. He also dealt with a case of the mumps that season and could be forgiven for wondering what god he had angered.
“I was thinking a lot about what’s happened,” he said. “It was a tough year last year, it wasn’t easy. It definitely came in my mind and I was thinking about ‘what can I do?”’
Becoming the first player to ever bring the Stanley Cup to Jyvaskyla this summer would be an adequate answer. That dream will become a reality if the Penguins can beat the San Jose Sharks one more time.
Should they make it happen, don’t be surprised if Maatta is front and centre in the celebration. There is universal respect for him inside the Penguins dressing room after the way he’s handled himself through difficult times.
“A lot of people have been saying the same thing about (goalie Matt) Murray – and he’s handled everything very well under a ton of pressure – but I think that pales in comparison to having cancer, to blowing out both your shoulders, to almost having a lacerated kidney when he went head-first into the boards there (in November),” said Cole.
It’s somewhat surprising to learn that Maatta is the youngest player in the Stanley Cup Final. He’s baby-faced, sure, but there’s also a maturity beyond his years that has to be shaped in part by the experiences he’s had.
One of those came with the Finnish world junior team before the 2011 tournament, when he visited the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto. That’s the closest he’s ever been to the Stanley Cup. Maatta posed for a photo beside the silver trophy in the “Great Hall” that day, but ended up losing it afterwards when his cellphone died.
“I wish I still had it,” said Maatta.
He’s got an opportunity for an even better one now. I’m sure his parents will be bringing a camera with them to Consol Energy Center.