On the Penguins: Orpik, Crosby and Gonchar develop even more respect for each other after experience in Vancouver

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They have been Sidney Crosby's teammates for nearly five seasons now.

They have sweated and struggled and celebrated with him.

They have absorbed crushing disappointments together, and shared the greatest high their game can offer.

But it wasn't until the Olympics that Brooks Orpik and Sergei Gonchar saw Crosby this way.

As an opponent.

A guy not to be counted on, but to be neutralized. As much as possible, anyway.

But perhaps surprisingly, playing against him -- something Orpik did much of in Team USA's two games against Canada -- didn't change their perspective on Crosby or his game. He was in a different role, but everything about him was precisely what they had come to expect.

"He did pretty much the same things," said Gonchar, whose five-man unit from Russia was not on the ice much against Crosby's line during Canada's 7-3 quarterfinal victory.

Orpik, conversely, was deployed against Crosby's unit as much as possible, and their paths crossed more than a few times.

"We had a couple of run-ins," Crosby said. "He kind of got me once in the first game, and I think I got him with a little bit of a high stick, a one-handed high stick. I didn't really hit him that hard but just got him enough. I got a penalty."

Orpik said that practicing against Crosby worked to his advantage "because I know how hard he works and competes," and that Team USA made a point of trying to disrupt Crosby in the neutral zone, where he gains so much of his speed for forays into the attacking zone.

Crosby, meanwhile, said that he anticipated everything that Orpik threw at him, too. And that it was every bit as unpleasant as he figured it would be.

"It wasn't fun," Crosby said. "He's tough to play against. I always knew that. I didn't need the Olympic experience to find that out.

"I watch him every day and see how strong he is, how good of a skater he is. He does his job. He's really solid defensively and he's hard to beat. He has that physical presence.

"I've always appreciated what he's done, and he did a great job at the Olympics. He was really solid and did the exact same things we've seen against some of the best players in the world. That says a lot about him."

Shrew Shero move

It's still too early to fully judge the wisdom of general manager Ray Shero's decision to send a second-round draft choice to Florida for defenseman Jordan Leopold last Monday.

After all, the Penguins' game against Dallas yesterday was just the third he has played for them. Heck, the guy's still learning his teammates' names, let alone the nuances of coach Dan Bylsma's system.

Nonetheless, a number of people inside the industry seemed to think it was a shrewd move by Shero, and didn't have to see Leopold take a shift here before reaching that conclusion.

The fact is, word leaking out from inside the organization is that Shero barely had completed the process of making the trade official when he began to field calls from other GMs asking if he was interested in trading Leopold to them.

Will Sergei stay or go?

There was something just shy of hyperventilation in some quarters when Gonchar's agent, J.P. Barry, made it known in an e-mail a week ago that contract negotiations for his client have been put on hold until after the season.

That was interpreted by some as conclusive evidence that Gonchar's tenure here is in its final months.

And, truth be told, it's possible that that will be the case.

After all, Gonchar is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. If he doesn't agree to a new deal by then, there's nothing the Penguins can do to keep him if he wants to leave.

And make no mistake, it is Gonchar who will determine where he plays next season. The Penguins want to retain him and Barry's e-mail said that when negotiations resume, he hopes "we can try to finalize a structure that will keep Sergei a Penguin."

The critical factor will not be the length of Gonchar's next contract -- that's something the parties can work out, with enough effort and time -- but whether maximizing his earnings is Gonchar's primary objective.

If so -- and he has every right to take that approach -- it's virtually assured that he'll move on, because it's hard to imagine the Penguins offering Gonchar a deal that carries the $5 million salary-cap hit of his current one, let alone a raise.

But if Gonchar, who is working on a five-year, $25 million contract, concludes that staying with a team where his game meshes nicely with those of his teammates and where his talents and intangibles are recognized and appreciated, Barry and Shero will have more than enough time to hammer out a new agreement, no matter how long the Penguins' playoff run lasts.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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