Career milestone pending for veteran Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik reached 600 NHL games in February, he sprang for a team dinner, at the strong suggestion of his teammates.
Tuesday night when the Penguins meet the Buffalo Sabres at Consol Energy Center, Orpik is expected to play in his 622nd game, putting him No. 1 among defensemen in club history. He's not sure what he might do to celebrate, mostly because he wasn't aware of it.
"Maybe I don't want to talk about it too much," Orpik said when told of the impending milestone. Then he smiled. "No, I'm not too superstitious."
A team alternate captain, Orpik has developed a reputation off of the ice for giving honest -- even brutally honest, when fitting -- assessments of the state of the club.
On the ice, this 6-foot-2, 219-pounder is physical and tenacious. As of Sunday morning, he led the NHL with 94 blocked shots. He was tied for second on the team with 83 hits, the most among the defensemen.
Orpik is willing to do whatever he is asked -- with four power-play regulars not available Saturday, he took a rare shift with a man-advantage in a 2-0 victory against the New York Islanders -- and over the years has developed a strong appreciation for whatever success the Penguins have.
"Probably more so than other guys because I was here when we were terrible," said Orpik, who is the longest-tenured player on the team and got rewarded with a Stanley Cup championship in 2009.
"A lot of these guys came in later [than me]. By '07-'08 we were in the [Stanley Cup] final and making the playoffs every year. Sometimes with the younger guys that's all you know, so you just expect to be in the playoffs every year. Maybe when we won I had a greater appreciation for how hard it was."
He played his first six NHL games in 2002-03 and became a regular the following season.
That was a stretch of time when there were no Stanley Cup chases, no winning streaks such as the 15-gamer the Penguins will take into the game Tuesday. The team finished at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference those two seasons, before the arrival of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and others.
Defenseman Mark Eaton joined the Penguins in 2006-07, stayed through 2009-10, spent two seasons with the Islanders, and now is back.
"When I first got here, he was a young guy and was solid then," Eaton said. "He's only gotten better every year. It seems like he gets stronger as well. His hitting ability and the way he skates and moves the puck, he does everything well.
"That's why he's played so many games. No weaknesses in his game."
Well, Orpik never will be confused with the scoring leaders among defensemen. He has eight points, all assists, in 36 games this season and has never had more than two goals or 25 points in a season.
But offense wasn't what made him attractive enough to the Penguins that they drafted him in the first round, 18th overall, in 2000.
His biggest value is in defensive and physical play. And in being a voice of the team and a player the others look up to.
In the past eight days, the Penguins have traded for two players who were team captains, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla. And Crosby is the undisputed leader of the club.
That doesn't mean Orpik will get lost in the shuffle.
"It's not rah-rah every day, every game," Eaton said. "Especially with him, he leads by example. When things need to be said, he says it. And when he says it, it makes a lot of sense and you're forced to listen and buy into what he's saying.
"He's not going to take a back seat at all."
Not after all this time.
Orpik, 32, tied Ron Stackhouse Saturday for most Penguins games played by a defenseman and the fifth-most games played by anyone in team history.
"It's a cool thing, I'd say for sure, especially with all the big names that have come through here," Orpik said. "A lot of the big names have come through trades and free agency, so maybe that's part of the reason" he ranks so high in games played.
Ask him the secret to his longevity, and Orpik will tell you he has stuck to a well-worn path.
"I really just learned -- it's not too big a cliché -- but I learned to kind of go game by game and make sure you're focused for that game," he said. "Once you're thinking about long-term goals or getting too far ahead of yourself, I think you lose your focus for the current game that you're on.
"I think stuff like that [milestone] is cool to reflect on maybe after the season."
Since he has come this far with one team, perhaps he will finish his career with the Penguins.
"I'd love to," said Orpik, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency in July 2014 and could start negotiating a new contract this summer.
"I've still got another year left. I guess we'll cross that bridge then."