Engelland making an impact for Penguins

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Deryk Engelland is one of the Penguins’ toughest and hardest-hitting players. He admitted, though, that after serving a five-game suspension last month for a hit that leveled Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader, the way a thundering check might be perceived by the NHL’s disciplinarians “is still in your head for a couple of games.”

Engelland doesn’t want to alter his physical style; he just wants to make sure he’s dishing out clean hits.

You can’t get much more physical or much cleaner than this:

In the third period Friday against the New York Rangers, Engelland delivered an explosive check that sent John Moore sprawling as Moore attempted to throw a hit near the boards in the neutral zone. In the NHL’s official play-by-play, it was Moore, not Engelland, who was credited with a hit.

Engelland, 31, ranks second among the team’s defensemen with 65 hits in 32 games going into the matchup tonight at Vancouver.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, because Engelland has not been a defenseman at all times this season. Playing different positions, filling new roles and adjusting to new combinations of players have been commonplace tasks this season for the injury-infested Penguins.

Perhaps, no player has been affected more drastically than Engelland. Against the Rangers, and for a short stretch of games earlier this season, he played right wing on the fourth forward line.

“It’s more an adventure,” he said of playing on the wing. “It’s different than playing [defense]. It’s harder because you’re skating a lot more, but it’s different because you don’t have to quite think as much — especially for the role I’m playing up there. You chip pucks in, chip pucks out and get in on the forecheck. It was a lot easier mentally, but a lot more skating.”

With Kris Letang back from injury Sunday for the 6-5 win Sunday against Winnipeg, Engelland was back on defense, paired with Brooks Orpik.

This is Engelland’s fourth full season in the NHL, and it has been marked by growth.

He still hasn’t dressed for every game — in addition to the suspension, he has been scratched from the lineup six times, including the first four games — but there are signs that the coaching staff has gained trust in him.

Friday, he toggled between playing a forward spot at even strength play and pairing with Orpik defensively when the Penguins were short-handed.

Coach Dan Bylsma said he wanted to carry over the strong penalty-killing by Engelland and Orpik from the team’s previous game.

“They did a good job, played strong, got the [puck cleared],” Bylsma said.

Sunday, Engelland was back at his natural position and in the lineup ahead of defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres. Twice last week, Engelland led the Penguins in ice time with more than 21 minutes.

“It was a weird start” to the season, Engelland said. “I didn’t play the first [four] games. I got a couple in on [defense] and played some forward.

“Unfortunately, we had injuries, but, for me personally, it’s made me play a bigger role and show I can play 18, 20 minutes a night and play against top guys. I think it’s helped me grow as a player and show I can do those things.”

So, is he showing himself or his coaches?

“Both,” Engelland said. “So they have trust in me.”

He is straightforward about some of his motivation for improving and making himself more valuable to the Penguins — he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in July.

“I’m trying to get another contract,” Engelland said. “It is a big year for me. It’s been going well lately, and, hopefully, I keep it going.”

Engelland is the closest the Penguins have to a heavyweight NHL fighter, but he has fought just four times this season. That’s strictly circumstantial.

“My fights are down a little bit, but you’re trying to pick your spots,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to be winning. You don’t want to fight with the lead and give [an opponent] any momentum. It’s a game-by-game thing.”

He has three goals, eight assists. Two of his goals came while he was playing on the wing, and he is one shy of his career high.

Engelland doesn’t want to stunt his season of growth with another suspension. The one last month was the second of his career. He sat out three games in 2011-12 for a hit on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger.

He has a theory.

“I guess I need to watch the open-ice hits,” he said. “Those are the ones that seem to be getting guys in the head when they see it coming and try to get out of the way. There’s a fine line there.

“That’s where both of my suspensions have been. That’s probably where I have to let off a little bit.”

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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