Penguins' Orpik embraces added playoff burdens


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The television cameras caught the blood gushing last week after Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik's nose lost a battle with Ottawa Senators forward Mike Fisher's helmet. Pretty nasty stuff. Maybe it wasn't as graphic as Washington Capitals center Eric Belanger pulling out his shattered teeth on the bench the next night, gruesome video that made all of the national sports shows, is all over the Internet and defines exactly what playoff hockey is all about. But it was nasty nonetheless.

"My nose is the least of my worries," Orpik said the other day.

No wonder.

As expected, Orpik led the Penguins with 32 punishing hits against the Senators. Only Buffalo winger Mike Grier (33) had more in the first round of the playoffs. During the regular season, Orpik ranked sixth in the NHL with 255 hits.

"I'm going to have a lot of stuff to take care of with my body after the season," Orpik said. "Right now, you just try to maintain what you have left."

There is some good news.

Imagine how the other guys feel. You know, the Senators. They were eliminated in six physically jarring games.

Orpik had a starring role in that series as the Penguins advanced to Round 2 and a Game 1 date with the Montreal Canadiens tonight at Mellon Arena. It wasn't just because he knocked the Senators into the offseason. His game has turned into so much more than just big hits. He and partner Sergei Gonchar played lights-out defense against the Senators' top line of Peter Regin, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.

That was the big worry about the Penguins at the start of this playoff run, wasn't it? That their defense wouldn't be as good as last season after losing the shutdown pair of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill to free agency?

Well, so far so good.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma certainly won't have any fears about sending out Orpik and Gonchar against the Canadiens' top line of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Travis Moen or Benoit Pouliot.

"I don't want to say it put more pressure on me," Orpik said of his added responsibilities after Scuderi and Gill left. "But it did put more of an emphasis on me to play better defense."

It's been great fun watching Orpik's game mature. Early in his career, there were many times he would look to make a hit even if it meant getting caught out of position. Those judgment lapses frequently led to pucks in back of the Penguins' net.

But Orpik learned.

"The guys in this league are so talented," he said. "They always have their head up and they're so aware of what's happening. If you're out of position, they'll pick you apart every time.

"You just have to let the game come to you. It's hard sometimes in the playoffs because you're so amped up. But you have to make sure you control your emotions and pick your spots."

Quite often, the hits still are there. Remember the four Orpik delivered so famously in a 15-second span in Game 3 against Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup final? Other times, though ...

"I've had fans tell me, 'I went to the game last night and you didn't hit anybody. What's up with that?' " Orpik said. "I just tell them, 'Hey, it's frustrating for me, too.' "

You should have heard the man laugh.

You would laugh, too, if you were on the hockey run he's on.

That Cup final in '08. Signing a six-year, $22.5 million contract that summer. Winning the Cup last season. Making the U.S. Olympic team and winning a silver medal at the Vancouver Games in February. Surviving the first round of the playoffs this spring when Eastern Conference higher seeds Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo all were beaten.

Who knows what is ahead?

"I like our chances," Orpik said. "We had a lot of questions coming in [to the playoffs] because we were so inconsistent all year. But I like how we responded after we were down 3-0 [in Game 6 against Ottawa]. The guys were talking about how eerie it was that we came back to win that game just like we came back from 3-0 in Game 6 at Philadelphia last season. I like how we reacted to that situation. I like how we reacted after losing the triple-overtime game [to the Senators in Game 5]. I like a lot of things about how we're playing right now."

Next, the eighth-seeded Canadiens.

Who could have guessed they would take out the President's Trophy-winning Capitals in seven games by winning the final three 2-1, 4-1 and 2-1?

Who could have imagined their defense -- led by the pairing of old friend Gill and Josh Gorges -- would turn out the lights on the Capitals' electric power play by giving up just one goal in 33 chances?

Who could have known that goaltender Jaroslav Halak would stop 131 of 134 shots in those final three wins?

"Halak was unbelievable," Orpik said. "It's kind of like what we were talking about the other day. Somebody asked, 'Who would you rather play -- Boston or Buffalo?' You probably would rather not play Buffalo because of [goaltender] Ryan Miller. You want to stay away from a goalie like him. A guy like that can steal a couple of games and win the series for his team. That's what Halak did ...

"Not that any of those guys are easy at this point. Look at how [Tuukka] Rask is playing for Boston. I don't think there's any goalie left that you want to face in the playoffs."

That includes the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury.

Know this: Orpik will do everything he can to make sure Fleury is at his best against the Canadiens. Even if it means leading with his nose.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . 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.


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