Penguins' Orpik has lot to mull over before Games

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Brooks Orpik has sweated with those guys.

He has suffered with them, and he has celebrated with them.

Fact is, he has done just about everything with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury that a professional hockey player can do with a teammate.

Except to compete with them, that is, and he'll get a chance to do that next month in Vancouver.

Orpik was one of seven defensemen named to the 23-man U.S. Olympic team yesterday, just days after Crosby and Fleury were selected for Team Canada and Malkin and Gonchar were put on Russia's roster.


Today

Game: Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3:08 p.m.

TV: FSN Pittsburgh.


Orpik and Fleury have been teammates for years, and he and Gonchar formed the Penguins' No. 1 pairing for much of this season, but odds are Orpik won't have much direct contact with either in a game at the Olympics.

That definitely is not the case with Crosby and Malkin, both of whom figure to play on the top line for their respective clubs. Containing them could be critical to Team USA's chances for success, and that's reason enough for Orpik to treat them like any other opponent, not guys with whom he's won a Stanley Cup.

"Competitive-wise, I don't think [I'd be reluctant to hit them]," he said. "Because as soon as you let up on one of those guys, they'll make you look pretty stupid. And I know they wouldn't let up on me."

Of course, Orpik also realizes that if a check delivered on a fellow Penguin in Vancouver doesn't work out quite the way he intends, it could have repercussions for after the Games.

"If you hit one of those guys and, God forbid, injure him, then come back, what's the carryover between you and that teammate, or you and your fan base or organization?" Orpik said.

That's something he'll likely spend a little time contemplating in coming weeks. A more pressing concern, though, is how Orpik will deal with a former Penguins -- and future Olympic -- teammate when the Penguins face Tampa Bay at 3:08 p.m. today at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Lightning left winger Ryan Malone, the ex-Penguin and Upper St. Clair native who also claimed a spot on Team USA, is one of hockey's top power forwards, and can make life miserable for any defenseman.

The Penguins devoted part of yesterday's practice to preventing opposing forwards from getting to their net, and that was a timely issue for Orpik, considering that he figures to spend much of this afternoon battling with Malone.

"He's one of those guys who, when you're with him on a team for so long, you don't really realize how hard he is to play against, especially in the front of the net," Orpik said.

While Orpik and Malone are first-time Olympians -- as are all of their teammates except Chris Drury, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rafalski -- this isn't the first time either will play for his country.

Both did it as recently as the 2006 world championships, although that tournament's prestige and profile do not rival those of the Olympics, especially in North America.

Orpik also pointed out that this could, quite literally, be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a lot of guys to compete for an Olympic medal.

"This could be the last opportunity for some guys, depending on your age, or even with the [NHL's next collective bargaining agreement]," he said. "I know a lot of owners are against [their players participating].

"The next Olympics are in Russia, not North America, and they really don't like that. Guys are naive if they think there will be a lot more opportunities for them."

The USA, with lineup fixtures like Bill Guerin, Mike Modano and Keith Tkachuk, among others, not involved this time, is generally viewed as a dark horse in these Olympics. Canada and Russia are widely regarded as gold-medal contenders, and Sweden is expected to be a force, too.

Orpik, though, said going to the orientation camp during the summer proved to him that the USA will field a quality team.

"There are guys, especially the ones from the Western Conference, you don't really see much," he said "Then you get to the camp and see how talented some of these younger guys are, it's pretty surprising."

Being part of that team, he said, is a thrill that rivals playing for the Stanley Cup.

"Anytime you play for a national team, it's something unique and special," Orpik said. "When you play for Pittsburgh, you're representing an organization and a city and a fan base.

"Obviously, when you play for your country, it's a lot bigger scale."


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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