On the Penguins: It's all in the mix

Longtime NHL executive Brian Burke is not a subtle man.

He is sometimes coarse, and always direct. Says what he thinks in ways that require no interpretation.

So it's not surprising that when he served as general manager of Team USA for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Burke's message to his players before the tournament was blunt.

"Brian Burke made us well aware ... that everyone was picking us to finish sixth or seventh," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "It was ingrained in us from Day 1 that nobody expected much out of us."

The U.S., of course, came within an overtime goal of winning a gold medal -- Penguins center Sidney Crosby, representing Canada, scored it -- and figures to contend again next month at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

"We know we can compete," said Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, who will join Orpik on Team USA. "And we can win."

While he and Orpik acknowledged that several countries, particularly Canada and Russia, could win the tournament -- "There's a lot of teams capable of it," Orpik said -- they believe the unwavering team-first mentality that served the U.S. so well in Vancouver will work in its favor again.

"We had guys who really bought into the roles they were given," Orpik said. "Everyone had a great attitude the whole time."

Naturally, having that kind of mentality doesn't guarantee success, but the U.S. lineup will be more experienced, and probably more solid, than the one that earned silver four years ago.

"Building off last Olympics and having a lot of similar key guys there and some good additions," Martin said, "the belief is there."

Thank heavens it was 2014 and not 1914

Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 26 of the 28 shots New Jersey threw at him during a 2-1 loss at the Prudential Center last Tuesday, but the goals by Adam Henrique and Michael Ryder aren't necessarily what he will remember the longest.

No, the shot that likely made the biggest impression on Fleury -- almost literally -- was a blur of a slap shot by defenseman Eric Gelinas that he stopped.

With his mask.

Fleury said that Gelinas' shot nearly hit Penguins forward Zach Sill on its way to the net, "so I picked it up a little late."

By then, it was too late to do much of anything but absorb the impact.

"It was fast," Fleury said. "I got hit, I think, toward the bottom [of the mask], the jaw."

The puck did no significant damage -- "Sometimes you get buzzing in your ear, but that wasn't the case, so it was all right," Fleury said -- although it did reinforce the importance of having quality protective gear.

"I'm just happy we're in [2014] now, because I have a mask, and it's good," Fleury said. "I can't imagine the guys back in the day."

Mix ’n’ match …’n’ match … ’n’ match

NHL teams like to have at least 10 defensemen capable of playing at an NHL level on their depth chart, simply because injuries are unavoidable at that position.

The Penguins can testify to that, having already used 11 this season.

With that much personnel change on the blue line, it's inevitable that pairings will be broken up frequently.

That complicates the challenge of learning a partner's tendencies, although Rob Scuderi seems to take it all in stride.

"It's the nature of the business," he said. "It's what happens. That's why you have a system in place, so guys can be interchangeable parts.

"Certainly, you envision your team a certain way, and you'd love it to stay that way the entire season, but it's not a realistic goal."

The week ahead

Today: vs. Winnipeg ... The Jets, who relocated from Atlanta in 2011, change cities more often than they win here. The franchise is 0-10-2 in its past dozen visits.

Tuesday: at Vancouver ... Sidney Crosby does not have an assist in five career games against the Canucks.

Friday: at Edmonton ... Someday, the Oilers are going to contend for more than just the No. 1 choice in the draft. But not this year, apparently.

Saturday: at Calgary ... Penguins have won three consecutive games, and four of their past five, at the Saddledome.

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