PITTSBURGH | There are half-seconds that skilled players talk about all the time. Wing Miroslav Satan mentioned them often during his six months with the Pittsburgh Penguins before a minor league demotion in early March.
A half-second, he would say, was the difference between a goal and a wasted scoring chance.
The Penguins can thank Satan they did not waste two scoring chances during a 48-hour sweep of Eastern Conference semifinal series games against the Washington Capitals. Without his patience with the puck, they likely would not need only a win Monday night at Mellon Arena to reach a second consecutive Eastern Conference final.
Satan, discarded to the American Hockey League two months ago to clear salary-cap room, has helped the Penguins take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven battle with the Caps.
“It’s great to see because Miro is one of the guys that can make those plays,” left wing Ruslan Fedotenko said Saturday night.
Early in the second period of that contest, Satan won a few individual positioning battles in the offensive zone to gain possession of the puck below the goal line. He could have hurried a pass to the high point or wrapped one around the boards. Instead he waited, which let Jordan Staal find space in the slot. Satan fed him the puck, and Staal whipped it past Caps rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov.
Satan’s primary assist was his second in as many games. Friday night at Mellon Arena, he dished to center Sidney Crosby - his early-season linemate - on a two-on-one that Crosby converted into the winning goal.
“It seems like the coaches are starting to trust me a little more,” Satan said. “They’re putting me into good situations and giving me more ice time. What I’m doing well is just doing what I need to do.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma admitted Sunday that in early March he did not envision Satan skating with the likes of Crosby and Staal.
“Maybe our opinion of him changed based on what he did when he went to [Wilkes-Barre/Scranton], how he reacted to the situation,” Bylsma said. “When he went down, he showed a lot of character. They came after him in the American League, tried to play physical with him, and he responded to that and helped out people around him. When he came back here, he was ready to step on the ice and help us any way he can. It shows a lot about who he is.”
Satan signed a one-year deal with the Penguins in July, not long after Marian Hossa opted for a one-year contract with Detroit. Satan, a former 40-goal guy and a 25-goal scorer on several occasions, was perceived to be Hossa’s replacement.
He wasn’t jettisoned to the AHL because the Penguins believed he was no longer good enough to play. They simply did not have a scoring-line spot for Satan and his 17 regular-season goals, and his $3.5 million salary pushed them too close to the cap after trade-deadline deals.
But the salary cap - $56.7 million this season - is not enforced in the playoffs.
Bylsma acknowledged Sunday that the Penguins were not counting on Satan to contribute in the playoffs, but Petr Sykora’s struggles - two goals in his past 23 games - left him little choice but to insert Satan into the lineup.
Even as a fourth-line winger with just spot duty on a scoring line and the second power-play unit, Satan has not disappointed. Heck, he even threw a few hits - perhaps a reason Satan’s responsibilities have increased.
“When he’s gotten his opportunities, certainly he’s demanded more ice time and demanded situations by the way he’s played,” Bylsma said.
He’s taking this opportunity one day - or one half-second - at a time.