BOSTON – Dan Bylsma’s postgame scowl was replaced by a smile when a reporter asked him about Joe Vitale Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.
Minutes after the Penguins edged the Bruins 2-1 in a tight-checking matinee, the Pittsburgh coach was happy to talk about his fourth-line center.
Penguins center Joe Vitale racked up 94 points during his four years at Northeastern University. (Getty)
“He’s really a grit guy, tenacious guy, has a lot of speed, and when he’s playing that way, he’s effective physically …” Bylsma said. “He just adds a little bit of speed and grit to our lineup in a workman role.”
Vitale spent four years in Boston as a Northeastern Husky, amassing 94 points (34 goals) over 143 games as one of NU’s most valuable and consistent players and earning Hockey East’s best defensive forward award as a senior in 2008-09.
A seventh-round selection (195th overall) by the Penguins in the 2005 draft, Vitale followed a fine college career with two solid seasons in Wilkes-Barre, scoring 15 goals and 47 assists and earning a plus-16 rating over 134 games. He also picked up nine games with the big club during a February fill-in stint last season, scoring a goal and an assist.
It just so happened that those nine games, and the first 44 on the Penguins’ schedule this year, didn’t include a visit with the Bruins. So while Vitale is a St. Louis native, Saturday’s game was something of a homecoming, his first game in Boston since his Huskies lost to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals at the Garden on March 20, 2009.
“Yeah, it was the first time playing here since I left Northeastern,” he said. “It was kind of fun flying in (Friday) night, kind of brought me back to my recruiting trip six or seven years ago. It was awesome, I loved coming back.”
Vitale wore the comforts of home well, too. Though he was on ice for the Bruins’ only goal, he won eight of 11 faceoffs, and picked up a hit – a punishing check that separated Boston’s Dennis Seidenberg from the puck 6:35 into the third, just seconds before Joe Corvo cut the Penguins’ lead to 2-1.
Those faceoff wins were a crucial part of the Penguins’ victory. Vitale won his first four draws, including three in the defensive zone, and in the second period won two key D-zone faceoffs against Rich Peverley and Boston draw specialist Patrice Bergeron on an extended penalty kill after Pascal Dupuis drew blood from Tyler Seguin with a high stick.
Vitale beat Bergeron again in the third, and again in the defensive zone. In fact, the fourth-liner lost only one of his eight defensive zone faceoffs, to Gregory Campbell with 6:09 remaining.
That was one big reason for the smile on Bylsma’s face when talking about Vitale after the game.
“He’s a good defensive player for us, battle level-wise,” the coach said. “Tonight on faceoffs he was really good for us in that situation, on the penalty kill, those are big things for him, big things for our penalty kill. I think he won five in a row from the left dot, on his strong side, which was really big.”
Asked to talk about his faceoff prowess, Vitale – true to the mold of an energy-injecting fourth-liner – ceded to the team effort.
“I think as a center group, we work hard at practice, (assistant coach) Tony Granato helps with the faceoff education of it all, knowing your opponents,” Vitale said. “We always talk before the games, so we kind of go in with the mindset of knowing what to expect, and I think when you do that, you mentally get a bit of an edge on what the execution’s going to be.
“I think that helps a lot, just getting the opportunity to get out there and get in a good rhythm and some confidence is what it’s about.”
Vitale’s Boston pro debut also fell under the watchful eyes of current Northeastern coach Jim Madigan. The former Penguins scout was in attendance to catch up with former colleagues, and although the first-year bench boss didn’t actually coach Vitale, he was heavily involved with the team during Vitale’s college career, and is one of many connections the gritty center still has to his years on Huntington Avenue.
“Yeah, (former NU goalie and current Wilkes-Barre puckstopper) Brad Thiessen obviously, he’s in our organization, so we’ve remained pretty close, Kyle Kraemer, those kind of guys,” he said. “I keep in good touch with (former NU coach and current Maple Leafs assistant) Greg Cronin, I had coffee with him when we were in Toronto, and we text every now and then and stuff. He’s taught me a lot, he kind of groomed me, more than probably all of the coaches I’ve had he’s the most responsible for me being here. I’m really glad he’s got a good shot in the NHL.”
The road to the NHL has been long and uncertain for Vitale, but now that he has found a regular role with the Penguins, he says his outlook is the same as it was when he came out of Northeastern almost three years ago.
“My mindset pretty much doesn’t change, I don’t think you can change,” he said. “You get comfortable and complacent, that’s when your game will start slipping, so my mindset’s the same way as it was last week and the beginning of the year, just keep pushing, keep learning, keep improving every day.”
On Monday night, Vitale and the Penguins will be on the road to Montreal after Sunday’s game at New Jersey.
Meanwhile, his alma mater will be playing in the first round of the Beanpot, and on the eve of the annual Boston collegiate tournament, Vitale had some history on his mind, with his Huskies and the Harvard Crimson both on long title droughts in the tourney.
“We’ve got BC on Monday night, right?” he asked a reporter, the use of “we” a conspicuous nod to his college allegiance. “I like NU and Harvard in the finals. I watched a little of the Harvard game last night, I like their game, and obviously I’ve got to go with the Huskies.”
Saturday afternoon, Vitale certainly gave his old school a good look at how to put on a great Garden performance.
Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com