It beats sittin' around

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

As far as milestones go, playing in three straight games isn't going to get you a silver stick and a handshake from the GM.

It won't even get you warm applause.

It doesn't even register.

But anyone who thinks three in a row is a meaningless accomplishment hasn't been a healthy scratch in 19 of the previous 22 games and been benched after 1:05 and 2:23 in two other games.

Three in a row is insignificant? Tell it to the guy who played only nine minutes and 22 seconds between Nov. 12 and Dec. 31.

Tell it to Jani Rita. If he plays in Pittsburgh tomorrow - and as of right now he's in and Georges Laraque is out - it'll be the first time he's played three straight since Nov. 11.

"Coach makes the decisions for the team," said Rita, crossing his fingers. "But I'm ready."

Hard to imagine he wouldn't be. He sat out 10 in a row, played one, sat out three, played three minutes over two games, and sat out six more games. Chances are he's pretty fresh.

"I thought he's played OK the last couple of games," said head coach Craig MacTavish.

CREATED SOME STUFF

"We cut it down to three lines, with a couple of exceptions, in the third period (against Toronto), but he did more with the ice time than he had and created some stuff. Early in his first shift he took the puck to the net. He didn't turn the puck over in the offensive zone, much. So far, so good - the last couple of games."

That's high praise, considering how reluctant MacTavish has been to give the first-round Finn any ice in the past.

But Rita's earned it. He scored his second goal of the season and played a season-high 12:37 in the rout over Chicago, then turned another nice game with linemates Todd Harvey and Marty Reasoner against the Leafs.

"I like the line," said MacTavish, who's been searching for a consistently effective fourth unit all year. "It's sure a benefit to me to have that line and be able to keep them together and get some good minutes out of them. It's something we haven't been able to do to any great length."

Rita, who wasn't strong enough on the puck down low and made too many defensive mistakes, took the banishments in stride, staying after practice to work on his faults and, for two games in a row, anyway, has shown flashes of the hunger they've been trying to coax out of him since he turned pro in 2001.

"It's tough (sitting out), but I learn everything I can from it and forget about it after that," he said. "Work harder, try to learn from my mistakes, forget about it and try to build my confidence again.

MAKING SOMETHING HAPPEN

"Getting in a game and making something happen is always a really big confidence booster, especially that goal. It felt really good."

There's a fine line, when you're a nervous rookie, between playing with urgency and not making the big mistake.

So it's best not to think about it.

"If you start to think about mistakes, you're going to make them," said the 24-year-old. "Just try to make the right plays. Keep it simple.

He's taking baby steps and is well behind his development schedule, but one look at his speed, strength and willingness to learn tells you there's too much there to give up on. Yet.

"He's done a better job," admits MacTavish. "(Assistant coach) Billy Moores worked with him a lot. He has a great attitude and work ethic. There's something to work with there. He could be the speed that we need on that fourth line."

Who's to tell what Rita will reach first - his potential or the end of Kevin Lowe's patience.

But one thing is for certain. This latest audition, two months before the NHL trade deadline, is taking him somewhere.

"I know what I have to do if I want to stay in the lineup," he said.

"It's pretty simple for fourth-line guys - you have to have pretty good speed, be solid defensively and make the right plays all the time. You have to make something happen when you get out there. That's the bottom line."


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