It almost looks like a competition is brewing among a handful of Penguins to see who will finish with the most hits.
Going into a game tonight at Ottawa, defenseman Brooks Orpik leads with 72, followed by forward Chris Kunitz (64), forward Craig Adams (60) and defenseman Deryk Engelland (59).
So, is there a friendly wager?
"Not really," Adams said. "[Orpik] has played a lot fewer games. He's a machine out there. I think he's unquestionably the hit leader, regardless of however many he has."
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Senators, 7:38 p.m. today, Scotiabank Place, Ottawa.
- TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Brent Johnson for Penguins; Craig Anderson for Senators.
Are 4-4 in past eight road games. ... Tyler Kennedy has nine goals, 13 points in 14 games vs. Ottawa. ... Steve Sullivan is three points shy of 700 for career.
Senators: Are 2-4-2 in past eight games. ... Jason Spezza has six-game points streak (1 goal, 6 assists). ... Daniel Alfredsson is three goals shy of 400 for career.
- Hidden stat: The Senators have scored 45 third-period goals, second-most in NHL going into games Thursday night, but also have given up 45 third-period goals, most in the league.
Orpik has led the Penguins in hits every season since his first full go-round in the NHL, in 2003-04. This season, he is the only one on the team averaging more than three hits a game (3.13), so he is in the lead despite missing the first eight games because of offseason abdominal surgery.
He is one reason this is not just a speedy, skilled team.
The Penguins ranked ninth in the NHL with 701 hits(22.6 a game) before Thursday. They can expect a physical game against Ottawa, which ranked sixth with 721.
Pummeling opponents at every turn, however, is not built into the Penguins' blueprint.
"I think the main objective is to just try to create turnovers and separate guys from pucks, but there's obviously other aspects of it -- sparking your team, providing energy that way, kind of like you hear about fighting," Orpik said.
"To a smaller degree in the regular season, but more when you're playing in a playoff series, you can wear teams down physically like that and hope it pays dividends later on -- either in the third period or later in the series.
"You want to be known [as a team that's] hard to play against."
Coach Dan Bylsma noted there are situations where coaches instruct the players to refrain from hitting, such as in a tight game when there might be a risk of it backfiring if someone takes himself out of the play.
"It's not just a matter of [scouting] where we can be physical or trying to run around in different areas," Bylsma said. "It's using your speed and your execution and your physicality to affect the other team."
Hitting fits into the Penguins' system because it can create turnovers and lead to a quick transition to offense or immediate scoring chances.
"I think our system helps the speed game that we play, to get in on forechecks," Kunitz said. "We want to be real good [checking] stick-on-puck, but we also want to be able to [physically] separate the guy from the puck when need be and be able to strip pucks.
"I know it's one of my key points to be successful."
For Kunitz, a top-line left winger who has nine goals, 17 points, physical play also dovetails with his personality.
"I kind of enjoy it," he said. "It's part of the game, and it kind of gets you into the rhythm of the day-to-day stuff for every game."
Adams is more of a grinder, a penalty-killer and checking-line center/winger. While he is not worried about finishing first on the team in hits, he looks at numbers put up by players such as Kunitz.
"For me, it's not so much a competition as it is sort of a gauge," he said. "I know if I'm playing well, playing my game and doing the things I should be doing, I should be right around the top for forwards [in hits]. If I get half as many as [Kunitz], then I'm probably not doing what I should be doing."
One name conspicuously absent from the top four names on the Penguins' hit list is winger Matt Cooke, who is a somewhat distant fifth with 45. Cooke has ranked in the top 20 in hits among forwards in the NHL the past five seasons, finishing as high as fourth in the team's Stanley Cup year (2008-09) with 262. He is on pace for 119 this season.
Cooke said he will hit opponents "if the opportunity's there, but I don't recklessly go about it anymore."
After receiving several suspensions from the NHL over the years, including one that ended his 2010-11 season and amounted to 10 regular-season and seven playoff games, Cooke remolded himself in response to a large amount of criticism and being called dirty.
He still plays a physical, hard-skating game, but keeps it within the parameters of the Penguins' system and pretty well within the limits of the NHL rules. He has more points (13) than penalty minutes (12), a balance he never had come close to striking over a previous season. He has not forgotten the physical and mental edge a team can forge with physical play.
"You would like to think that over a period of 60 minutes you can administer some wear and tear, maybe put some thoughts in brains that someone's coming, [even if] you might not be that close," Cooke said. "Hopefully, it pays off down the road."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published December 16, 2011 5:00 AM