The morning after the shift of his life, after the Detroit Red Wings discovered that trying to pull a postseason victory out of Mellon Arena can be like beating your head against Brooks Orpik, the Penguins' defenseman was busy deflecting credit and struggling to correctly slot in the memory his potentially series-changing cadenza.
Asked yesterday to gauge the reaction of his teammates when he skated to the bench after piggy-backing four booming checks along the corner boards that splattered Red Wings on the ice like cephalopods, Orpik said, "not too much really; it was such a crucial time in the game. There was about five minutes left."
Actually, there were more than 10, but the thunder in Orpik's body blows roared with a kind of finality.
"Sometimes, there isn't as much separation as people think," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock about the degree of separation between a playoff win and a playoff loss. "That game was available until the end."
The Red Wings surely could have erased a 3-1 deficit after Orpik's rampage, and, in fact, sliced it in half just three minutes later, but few in the building who weren't wearing red hats could anticipate that. Orpik simply had put the building on his shoulders, lifted his team just as assuredly, and his memorable solo of old-time hockey percussion changed the working suffix for hope around here from less to full.
"That might have been the loudest moments I've ever heard with the crowd here," said Penguins forward Max Talbot, who assisted on the Adam Hall goal that made the score 3-1. "Just hearing the crowd like that, it just gives us such momentum. You want to go on the ice and do the same thing."
We often write unavoidably in this sport of winning goals and game-changing saves, but if a defenseman can win a hockey game with a single skeleton-rattling shift, Orpik did that in Game 3.
"It was just one shift," Orpik said, articulating the way a coach would.
Several others, he felt, were more causative to the outcome, and, perhaps, that's right. But, for Orpik personally, that was perhaps a million-dollar shift. Chances are roughly 100 percent that Orpik's representation will have that shift on a continuous video loop the moment unrestricted free agents go to market, and chances are roughly as good that some general managers are going to look at Daniel Cleary and Pavel Datsyuk crumbling to the pond at the will of No. 44 in black and think, "Yes, yes, yes! We've got to overpay this guy by at least $1 million."
Such is the double-edge dagger of the salary-cap structured collective bargaining agreement. Had the Penguins been dismissed in the first round of playoffs this spring, unrestricted labor like Orpik and Ryan Malone might well have been procured with something resembling their market value. But, as the club was extending its season toward June, those players effectively made millions, likely payable from a bank in another major North American city.
For the moment, though, Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final goes on stage tomorrow night in the world's most ancient NHL arena and having Orpik on your side for such an event is a growing advantage.
"I know a lot's been said about their experience," Orpik said of the Red Wings, still with a firm 2-1 grip on this series. "But that means they do have a lot of older guys. The more you can pound on them, the better it's going to be for us as the series gets longer."
Over the course of 17 playoff games, no Penguin has delivered the number of hits nor blocked shots as this 28-year-old defenseman from that hockey hotbed of stay-at-home defensemen, San Francisco, Calif. Had it not been for Montreal's Michael Komisarek, Orpik would have led the entire NHL in hits by a defenseman over an entire hockey winter in which he was a career-best plus 12.
"You don't want to be running out of position," Orpik said of his desire to deliver the big checks. "In our system, most of the hitting is done in our zone. We don't take a lot of chances at the other end. You pretty much let [the opportunities] come to you, and [in Game 3], the opportunity was there, and when it comes, you really want to make them pay."
Oh yeah somebody's gonna pay. Over most of the next week he hopes. And particularly over the summer.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.