Penguins winger Georges Laraque just might be the toughest fighter in the NHL, but that is not the label he covets. He wants to be known as a well-rounded hockey player.
He also does not mind the occasional comparison to his idol, Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier.
Laraque was thinking about those things Tuesday night in the third period of the Penguins' rough-and-tumble, 8-2 loss in Philadelphia.
Flyers goaltender Martin Biron fell behind his net after Penguins leading scorer Sidney Crosby brushed past, then motioned for Crosby to come back and fight. Laraque knew that was his cue.
"Crosby shouldn't fight anyone because he's the best player in the world, so right away when that happened, I was thinking about ways to show [Biron] we didn't like it," Laraque recalled yesterday after the Penguins practiced at Southpointe.
"I wanted to do it more in a comical way. I wanted to do it just to provoke, not with intent to injure, so I wouldn't get suspended."
- Matchup: Penguins at New York Islanders, 7:08 p.m. today, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Dany Sabourin for Penguins. Rick DiPietro for Islanders.
- Penguins: Have split two games with Islanders, with each team winning, 3-2, at home. ... Are 0-4 at Nassau since October 2006. ... Evgeni Malkin has five-game points streak (1 goal, 5 assists).
- Islanders: Are 2-5-1 in their past eight games. ... Will be trying to win two in a row for first time since Nov. 16-19. ... Bill Guerin has three of his 13 goals in the past three games after going 13 games without one.
- Hidden Stat: Through yesterday, the Islanders were the lowest-scoring team in the league with 69 goals.
Inspired by a famous 1952 black-and-white photo of Robinson stealing home, he devised The Slide.
His next shift, Laraque skated toward Biron, pretended to lose his balance and knocked the goaltender off his skates with a feet-first move.
It earned him a goalie-interference minor penalty, a 10-minute misconduct penalty and a $1,000 fine from the NHL, but Laraque was pleased with the play.
"I kind of turned like I lost my balance, and I did it so good that Biron thought that I got tripped by one of his own players," Laraque said.
Two nights later, before there was any scoring in the Penguins' home game against Ottawa, Laraque and Senators heavyweight Brian McGratton dropped their gloves. They circled each other, hands at the ready. Then, it was over in a flash, Laraque the clear victor in the fight.
"He's still one of the toughest guys in the league. I just got lucky," Laraque said.
Sometimes linemate Petr Sykora felt no need to be so humble on Laraque's behalf.
"It was amazing how quick he ended the fight," Sykora said. "Guys keep trying, but they keep losing. He's by far the strongest fighter I've been around."
During the last several weeks of last season, after the Penguins acquired Laraque from Phoenix at the trade deadline, they weren't terribly happy with his play. He wasn't throwing his weight around or skating particularly well.
He reported back this season in much better shape -- he's listed at 6 feet 3, 243 pounds -- and his bosses have noticed a change.
"Georges Laraque is probably playing the best hockey of his NHL career," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "He's got confidence. He's in great shape. He's tough to play against because he's physical. He's finishing his checks."
Laraque, 31, is not having a breakout season in terms of points -- he has a goal and four assists in 23 games to go with 49 penalty minutes and an even plus-minus rating going into the road game tonight against the New York Islanders -- but he's having fun.
Last week he received a warm welcome in Edmonton, where he spent eight seasons. In that game, and the home game before it against Phoenix, Therrien started Laraque on Crosby's line.
"I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have worked so hard to be able to do more than just fighting and to play more than most tough guys do," said Laraque, who has topped nine minutes of ice time the past six games and averages 8:16.
At times in recent games, Laraque has been elevated to the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Sykora. The three traded passes down the ice to produce a goal by Sykora last Saturday at Vancouver.
"I think he's doing really well," said Sykora, who sees Laraque's strength as, well, his strength.
"He can get behind the net, get a couple guys on his back and we can get the cycle going. He's very smart in how he uses his size. When he gets behind the net, he can protect the puck. These days, you can't hold or hook, so they basically have to try to outmuscle him, but you can't."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.