The realization hit home Thursday night about the same time Brooks Orpik sent San Jose forward Andrew Desjardins flying with one of the prettiest checks you'll ever see.
At 33, in his 10th NHL season and having played in more games than any defenseman in Penguins history, Orpik still is incredibly valuable to his hockey club.
You wouldn't know the Penguins defense is in the midst of tough times by watching the way the team took the bite out of the mighty Sharks with a 5-1 win at Consol Energy Center.
OK, so maybe that's not entirely true. The Penguins did allow the Sharks a ridiculous shot total, 45. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had to be terrific again against a team that came in having won nine of its past 10 games and had just three losses in regulation. He covered the defensive mistakes, allowing only a second-period goal to rookie Tomas Hertl after the Penguins had taken a 4-0 lead. He has given up three goals in his past 184 minutes.
But, trust me, that Penguins defense could be so much worse.
Paul Martin, who does everything for the club and plays in every important situation, missed his fifth consecutive game with a broken leg. The Penguins are 5-0 without him. Rob Scuderi, who is as steady as they come on the blue line, missed those five games and the 14 before it with a broken ankle. The team is 13-5-1 without him.
Give much of the credit to Orpik.
It was his work, along with partner Deryk Engelland, against the Sharks' top line of Joe Thornton, Hertl and Brent Burns, who combined for seven shots, six by Hertl. It was his three blocked shots and three hits -- including the one on Desjardins -- in a scoreless first period. It was his assist on the Penguins' first goal by Pascal Dupuis in the opening seconds of the second period. It was his team-leading 4:43 of short-handed time that helped to kill three power plays.
Just another day at the office for Orpik.
"I think [Kris Letang] and I both know we have a big responsibility with Paulie and Scuderi out," Orpik said. "You try not to put too much pressure on yourself, but you'd be a fool not to recognize that. We have a couple of impressionable young guys back there, Olli [Maatta] and Simon [Despres]. I know Olli plays like he's 27, but they're watching us."
Orpik was angry with himself because of his giveaway late in the second period Nov. 27 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Penguins' first game without Martin, his regular partner. Instead of dumping the puck in, he tried to force a pass that was intercepted and turned into a goal by Tyler Bozak with 4.9 seconds left that gave Toronto a 5-3 lead. That the Penguins came back to win, 6-5, in a shootout didn't ease his angst.
"It's a game of mistakes," Orpik said. "But it's really frustrating when you make a stupid mistake. I have to be better than that."
Orpik has been.
The results have been impressive in the four games that followed the Toronto game, even in the one Thursday night when Fleury faced all of that rubber. "That's the best group of forwards that we play against," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of the Sharks. Fleury has allowed just three goals in his past three wins. Backup Jeff Zatkoff gave up one goal in the other win without Martin.
Orpik has played in all 30 games despite leading the Penguins with 60 blocked shots and ranking second behind Tanner Glass with 92 hits. The check of Desjardins was so hard that Orpik also flew at least 6 feet in the air. Make no mistake, Desjardins got the worse of it.
"I don't think I jumped into him. That was just the way I came off him," Orpik said. "The main purpose of a hit is to create a turnover, to knock the guy off the puck. Sometimes, you can generate some energy in the building and set a tone. On that one, maybe the guys on their bench noticed it. I got a lot more dump-ins than guys trying to beat me at the blue line after that."
Orpik will be a free agent after the season. The Penguins gave new contracts this summer to Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz to prevent them from becoming free agents after the season. That's left Orpik in limbo. He isn't sure what's ahead.
"I wouldn't say I'm worried about it. It's like when people ask me about [playing for the U.S.] Olympic team. You're focused on the season game to game, but if you say you don't think about it, you would be lying through your teeth. I'm aware of it, but I realize it's a different world with the salary cap. The way this organization is structured, I think the top seven prospects are defensemen. We'll see."
No matter what happens next summer, Orpik always will have a prominent place in Penguins' history for reasons that go beyond his longevity and number of games. He was a big part of the franchise's Stanley Cup team in 2009. He certainly has his teammates' respect. Amazingly, they voted him their highest honor -- their Players' Player award -- after each of the past three seasons.
Will it surprise anyone if Orpik wins the thing a fourth time?
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.