Canes' Pitkanen leads NHL in minutes

Staff writerJanuary 7, 2010 

— Twenty-six minutes and 56 seconds may not seem like a lot of time to most people.

A short lunch break, maybe, or enough time for a light jog.

But in terms of actual NHL ice time in a game, it's extensive, a heavy workload given the hard skating, physical pounding and aerobic demands.

It's also the average time logged each game by the Carolina Hurricanes' Joni Pitkanen. In a season when the Canes aren't near the top in many league statistics, the defenseman ranks No. 1 in the league in average ice time per game.

Not that he's complaining.

"It's been OK," Pitkanen said. "Some games, you feel a little more tired. Sometimes it's tough getting to sleep after games. But overall, I feel pretty good.

"It depends on what kind of game it is. Some games you have to skate more, and some games, you don't have to skate that much. So every game is a little different."

Pitkanen, 26, has logged more than 30 minutes in seven games this season, with a high of 33:46 on Dec. 26 against the Philadelphia Flyers. In back-to-back games last month at Washington andOttawa, he played 29:52 against the Capitals and then 31:11 the next night against the Senators.

"And it's like a marathon for him," defenseman Aaron Ward said. "Every stoppage of play, he's out there skating around and trying to keep his legs loose. It's not like he's resting.

"He's obviously got great stamina. As a player, you have to know when you've hit your limit, and I don't think he's the type of guy who has a limit."

Canes coach Paul Maurice isn't sure, either. In talking about Pitkanen's minutes, he inevitably brings up last year's Stanley Cup playoff run.

"One game, he played into the 30s and told me the next day he didn't start feeling good until late in the third period," Maurice said. "He's one of those guys, if you play him 22 minutes a night, he's going to look at you like, 'What's the problem? What did I do wrong?'

"He wants to be outevery second shift. The matchups are secondary to him. He just wants to play, and he's capable of playing."

Maurice is more than happy to oblige Pitkanen and let him be the team's top ice man. With his smooth stride and puck-handling skills, Pitkanen gives the Canes someone who can take the puck up the ice and jump into the offensive play.

And Maurice also will match Pitkanen against the other team's top forwards.

Don't offend him

Although he comes across as mild-mannered off the ice and maintains a poker face on it, Pitkanen has a mean streak that flashes when provoked. At 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds, he has the size to be physical.

"He's a horse out there," Ward said.

Pitkanen's hits aren't the kind that find their wayonto YouTube. But let the Finn check a forward into the boards, with a purpose, and the guy can barely break free.

Not that Pitkanen doesn't get in some big hits. Last month, he flattened Florida Panthers forward Radek Dvorak after a collision along the boards.

"He hit me pretty hard in the first period," Pitkanen said, breaking into a smile.

So it was retaliation?

Another smile.

"A little bit," Pitkanen said. "I guess he was tired after a long shift and didn't see me coming."

Filling Corvo's void

Recently chosen to Finland's Olympic team for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Pitkanen played more than 29 minutes in each of the Canes' past two games, both against the New York Rangers. He had a goal in the first game and an assist in the second, and he registered a total of six hits and eight blocked shots.

Pitkanen has two goals and 18 assists in 32 games. Twelve of his points (one goal, 11 assists) have come in the 14 games since defenseman Joe Corvo was lost to a leg laceration.

"Since Joe's gone down, his numbers have taken off," Maurice said. "He's played in all situations with our injuries and against the best."

Pitkanen had arthroscopic knee surgery before training camp and missed five of the first six regular-season games. He also has had more knee issues during the season, missing a handful of games.

"He had some games early that were uncomfortable for him, and he was still able to perform," Maurice said. "He's been a good player for us."

Maurice was asked if he planned to keep Pitkanen on his present pace over the final 41 games.

"We're going to try," Maurice said, grinning. "I don't see his ice time coming down anytime soon."

During Tuesday's practice at the RecZone, Pitkanen had a puck bang off his visor. He went down to the ice and left with blood trickling down his nose.

"A tough day, but he'll be all right," Maurice said.

And ready for more ice time tonight against Nashville.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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