With a straight face, Brooks Orpik wondered aloud about cracking the Penguins lineup coming off of injury when the other defensemen have been playing so well, particularly in a 2-1 shootout win Thursday at Philadelphia.
"The way the six defensemen have been playing, it's pretty tough to take one of those guys out, so I'm just trying to be patient with it," Orpik said Friday after he was one of nine players who participated in an optional morning skate at Consol Energy Center before the home game against New Jersey.
"[Thursday] night is probably the best we've played defensively in a long time against a really, really good Philadelphia team that can score a lot of goals. I thought the defensemen had a really good gap in the neutral zone and frustrated those guys.
"To be fair, the six guys who are playing, everyone's doing a really good job. I think anyone would have a tough time trying to pick one of those guys to take out of the lineup."
Coach Dan Bylsma put an end to any thought that Orpik might have forfeited his spot in the lineup because of the broken right index finger that has kept him out of the past 13 games
"When Brooks is ready to play, and, when Sidney Crosby, is ready to play, we're going to insert them into the lineup," Bylsma said, adding that when Orpik returns, "he'll be immediately" reunited with defenseman Kris Letang, who lately has been playing with Ben Lovejoy.
Orpik is an alternate captain and a physical player (177 hits) who is sound defensively and operated effectively within the Penguins system.
He has medical clearance to play and said his conditioning and timing are good. He is expected to return in the next week.
Bylsma concurred that pulling a defenseman out of the lineup will be "a difficult decision."
It's likely that Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, who form what the coach called his "shutdown guys" will remain together. That likely leaves Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland or Matt Niskanen as the odd man out.
Penguins center Dustin Jeffrey, who left the game Thursday when Philadelphia's Jeff Carter fell on him, will have an MRI on his right knee when the swelling subsides, Bylsma said.
To take Jeffrey's place against New Jersey, Mike Comrie played for the first time since Nov. 24. He had hip surgery Dec. 29.
Bylsma said Comrie had looked good in practice and told the coach Thursday that he felt ready. Comrie got hurt in the second game of the season but continued to play off and on for weeks, with no goals and five assists in 16 games.
"The thing about Mike's play early in the season is, he wasn't really forthright in saying how hurt he was," Bylsma said.
"He should have been, but I think he was trying to play with the injury and with the pain. He was not able to do what he normally can do skating-wise and speed-wise."
Crosby, who missed his 34th game because of a concussion, and fellow center Mark Letestu (believed to be shoulder) skated for about 45 minutes with conditioning coach Mike Kadar before the game-day skate. Crosby's initial on-ice workout March 14 was 15 minutes.
"I talked to [Crosby] before he went on the ice. He said he was going to try to keep up with Mark Letestu," Bylsma said.
"I talked to Mark Letestu afterward, and Mark said he was trying to keep with Sid."
Backup goaltender Brent Johnson remains day to day because of a minor injury, believed to involve his neck. Rookie Brad Thiessen, recalled Thursday, again dressed along with starter Marc-Andre Fleury.
"I'm ready for my chance, whenever it comes," said Thiessen, who is 37-7-1 for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
He leads the American Hockey League in wins, shutouts (seven) and goals-against average (1.88).
Rookie winger Eric Tangradi (concussion) continues to practice but understands it might be tough to crack the lineup.
"You don't want to get put in and be the piece that might mess things up, that might mess the 'jell' up," he said.
"Things are rolling now, and you want to keep moving forward from there."
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com . First Published March 26, 2011 4:00 AM