Brooks Orpik helps goalie Tomas Vokoun defend a shot by the Rangers' Carl Hagelin in a Jan. 31 game.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Brooks Orpik has been the Penguins' most consistent hitter since he earned a permanent place in their lineup in 2003.
He has led them in hits each of the seven seasons the NHL has recognized that as an official statistic, with totals ranging from a high of 309 in 2008-09 to a low of 194 in 2010-11.
Orpik just might do that again this season, but nine games in, it also seems entirely possible that he won't.
He was not credited with a hit in either of the victories against New Jersey and Washington over the weekend, and enters the game tonight on Long Island tied with Simon Despres for seventh on the team.
Orpik has 14, an even dozen fewer than team leader Tanner Glass.
But even as his hit count has been dropping, another of Orpik's stats has been rising dramatically.
Before Monday night's games, he was tied for sixth in the league with 24 blocked shots, despite being credited with just one in two of the past three games.
His usual defense partner, Paul Martin, ranks second on the team with 16.
Shot-blocking has been part of Orpik's repertoire throughout his career, and he generally places in the top four among the Penguins.
Only once, however, has he led them. That happened in 2005-06, when he was credited with 122 blocks.
Orpik has had more blocked shots than hits in six of the first nine games. Making any definitive judgments about his play is premature, considering that the season is just 2 1/2 weeks old, but the statistical shift is hard to ignore.
Orpik, though, is adamant that it does "not at all" reflect any fundamental change in the way he goes about his work.
He and Martin are charged with being the Penguins' shutdown defense pairing, and rank third and first on the team in ice time.
It might seem reasonable to think that being on the ice so much would make it possible for an accomplished hitter like Orpik to play the body as much -- or more -- than he has in previous seasons, but he was quick to point out how impractical that can be.
"Some people would say, 'Oh, if you're playing more minutes, you should have more hits,' " he said. "But if I was playing, like, 15 minutes a night it would be easier to just run around and abuse your body. If I did that now, I'd be gassed by the third period."
His personal-best for hits in a game this season is three, which he has done twice.
Conversely, his high for blocked shots, nine, not only is an individual high, but is a franchise record.
Orpik earned that footnote in Penguins history during a 2-1 shootout victory Jan. 27 in Ottawa, and he said his total was inflated more by the way the Senators offense operated than by anything special he was doing.
"For my sake, it was good, because a lot of them, it was just good stick positioning off of rushes," he said. "Just shots where they were trying to shoot through me, and you just get a good stick out there.
"It's not like you're taking it off the knee or off the ankle every time. It wasn't nine of those. There were only a couple that I blocked with my body. The rest were all from my stick positioning.
"Hopefully, people don't look at that [high total] and expect it every game. It's not going to happen."
Putting up big numbers of blocks and hits has to be gratifying for a defensive defenseman, just as skilled offensive players appreciate being rewarded with goals and assists.
Orpik, though, cautioned that putting undue emphasis on trying to accumulate big numbers could be counterproductive.
"Blocking shots is, I think, the same as hits," he said. "If you approach a game looking for that kind of stuff, you usually get caught out of position, or doing something you wouldn't normally do. You just have to be patient.
"Some games, you just have more opportunities for both. Some games, you might not have any."
Unlike some offensive statistics, which tend to have well-defined criteria, determining what constitutes a blocked shot or a hit is subjective, and the standards can vary significantly from rink to rink.
"I've never put too much value in that number of hits [statistic]," Orpik said. "It's [assessed differently] in every building.
"I don't think it's any surprise that if you look at [the New York Rangers], they always have like five guys in the top 10. In New Jersey, you have to take somebody's head off to get [credit for] a hit.
"I think I'm just as physical now as I've been in the past."