AS A MAATTA OF FACT ...

De­fense­man’s play­off emer­gence might make Hawks look at con­tract dif­fer­ently

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BEN POPE bpope@sun­times.com | @BenPopeCST

De­fense­man Olli Maatta in­sists he hasn’t ap­proached the Black­hawks’ play­off games any dif­fer­ently than he ap­proached their reg­u­lar-sea­son games.

But some­thing clearly has changed.

In a strange twist be­liev­able only be­cause of all the other weird­ness of this post­sea­son, Maatta en­tered Game 5 of the Hawks’ se­ries

Tues­day against the Golden Knights as their fourth-lead­ing scorer of the play­offs. He trailed only Pa­trick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Do­minik Kuba­lik, the team’s three big­gest of­fen­sive weapons.

The Hawks were elim­i­nated from the play­offs with a 4-3 loss. Toews, Alex De­Brin­cat and Kane scored for the Hawks.

Maatta had six points — three goals and three as­sists — in the Hawks’ first eight play­off games. He scored their lone goal in Game 3 against the Knights, then cre­ated their first goal in Game 4 with a no-look cen­ter­ing pass to wing Drake Cag­giula.

He also led the Hawks in scor­ing-chance and shots-on-goal ra­tios dur­ing his time on the ice.

‘‘I think I play the game the same way,’’ Maatta said be­fore Game 5. ‘‘I’m ob­vi­ously all the time just look­ing for spots to jump in there, help the for­wards go­ing into the of­fense. That’s got to be part of to­day’s D-man’s game. You’ve got to look for those chances when you get them.’’

He then cred­ited the rest of his team­mates for mak­ing good plays, as hockey play­ers seem pro­grammed to do.

The heavy in­volve­ment of the Hawks’ de­fense­men in the of­fen­sive zone has been a no­tice­able and en­cour­ag­ing devel­op­ment this post­sea­son, but Maatta has been the most in­volved among the de­fense­men. And on a ros­ter that fea­tures Dun­can Keith and Adam Bo­qvist, even that is weird.

Watch­ing Maatta’s out-of-the-blue emer­gence as a crit­i­cal of­fen­sive play­maker has been par­tic­u­larly dis­con­cert­ing be­cause of how lit­tle he did of­fen­sively dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Maatta had only 17 points (four goals, 13 as­sists) in 65 reg­u­lar-sea­son games. He also had scored only 21 points (two goals, 19

as­sists) in 69 post­sea­son games with the

Pen­guins.

But Maatta did take on a big­ger role late in the reg­u­lar sea­son, once he and Slater Koekkoek de­vel­oped some chem­istry and be­came an un­ex­pect­edly solid third pair­ing for the Hawks’ gen­er­ally por­ous de­fen­sive corps. Coach Jeremy Col­li­ton has praised that pair­ing con­stantly and did so again be­fore the game Tues­day.

‘‘They do so many lit­tle things that help them have suc­cess: com­mu­ni­ca­tion and hold­ing up and box­ing out de­fen­sively, gap [con­trol],’’ Col­li­ton said. ‘‘That al­lows them and the guys they’re on the ice with to play with the puck, be in the of­fen­sive zone. And when you do that, there’s a chance to chip in of­fen­sively.’’

Koekkoek will be a re­stricted free agent this off­sea­son, so his im­prove­ment might help him earn an­other low-cost, one-year ex­ten­sion, like he did last year.

Maatta’s con­tract sit­u­a­tion is more com­plex. He tech­ni­cally has two years left at a $4.1 mil­lion cap hit, but he has looked like a prime off­sea­son buy­out can­di­date for three rea­sons: The Hawks will be crunched by the cap stay­ing flat for next sea­son; Ian Mitchell, Wy­att Ka­lynuk and Lu­cas Carls­son (all of whom are on cheap, en­try-level con­tracts) will be push­ing for jobs on de­fense; and Maatta’s con­tract is buy­out-friendly.

Buy­ing out Maatta would cost the Hawks only $680,000 each of the next four sea­sons, sav­ing them a $3.4 mil­lion chunk of cap space each of the next two sea­sons.

Look­ing ahead to the de­layed off­sea­son ear­lier this sum­mer, that de­ci­sion seemed close to a no-brainer for gen­eral man­ager Stan Bow­man. Now, how­ever, Maatta’s sud­den emer­gence as a re­lied-on vet­eran might com­pli­cate mat­ters.

AP

De­fense­man Olli Maatta cel­e­brates with wing Drake Cag­giula after scor­ing the Hawks’ only goal in Game 3 of their play­off se­ries against the Golden Knights.

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