New grit gives Penguins an edge
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In the unfolding months of what turned out to be a Stanley Cup season, one big knock against the Penguins was a lack of grit.
Look at them now.
Before games last night, the Penguins led the league with 264 hits through 10 games. Winger Matt Cooke, who has been at or near the top of that individual category, ranked second with 38 hits. Winger Chris Kunitz was seventh with 30. Deryk Engelland leads the team's defensemen with 20.
And that is with big-hitting defenseman Brooks Orpik missing six games because of a groin injury and gritty winger Arron Asham not making his Penguins debut until the 5-3 loss Wednesday at Tampa because of a preseason shoulder injury.
The Penguins are considered one of the top skill teams, with viable scoring- title candidates in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and one of the top two-way forwards in Jordan Staal. But playing with a physical edge comes in handy, too, especially against feisty opponents such as rival Philadelphia, which visits Consol Energy Center tonight.
Game: Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.
Probable goaltenders: : Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Sergei Bobrovsky for Flyers.
Penguins: Coming off of 1-1-1 road trip. ... Have split 2 games with Philadelphia, with 7-4 goal edge. ... Led NHL with 130 missed shots before Thursday's games.
Flyers: Danny Briere, 6 goals in 9 games, is off to fastest scoring start since '05-06. ... Scott Hartnell led league with 37 penalty minutes before Thursday's games. ... Allowing 26.1 shots a game, second lowest in NHL going into Thursday's games.
Of note: The Penguins have won 42 games in a row when scoring five or more goals.
"There are good hits and bad hits -- you have to be effective and smart about it," general manager Ray Shero, who purposely put a lot of pop into the lineup, said Thursday while he watched his team practice at Consol Energy Center.
"But that's an element of our game that we like to have, especially with the kind of makeup that we have right now."
Putting a shoulder into an opposing player or introducing him to his reflection in the glass doesn't translate directly into wins -- the Penguins are one point above .500 -- but it's a way to disrupt opponents.
"It's fun. It can create as much energy in a building as a goal," Cooke said of a solid hit. "It's a mentality. It's a mindset. It's something that we want, that's in our game.
"[Opponents] just know you're coming, and it creates turnovers. They rush with the puck. It creates havoc for other teams."
Seven Penguins average more than two hits a game.
Cooke said he has played a physical style all his life. He was at the center of a controversy last season when his hit on Boston's Marc Savard left Savard with a severe concussion and prompted the NHL to legislate against blind-side hits and hits to the head.
Cooke, whose hit on Savard was legal at the time, said he welcomes such rules so players can continue to be physical within set guidelines. They also would do well in their coaches' eyes to be physical within reason.
"It's fun to go out there and take a run at someone, but you've got to be smart about it and not get yourself out of position to look for a big hit," said Engelland, who has no trouble seeing the effect of good hits.
"If I get some big hits in the first period, you kind of notice that the puck doesn't get dumped in your corner quite as much. They're a little more aware of it and they'll chip it early or make a bad dump."
Asham was forced to watch the Penguins' first nine games and said the club plays "a hard game," but he sees toughness in more than just the hit totals.
"We've got [Eric Godard], who is one of the top five heavyweights in the league," Asham said. "We've got [Mike Rupp], who can look out for himself. We've got [Engelland] who's been proving every game that he's getting more comfortable and he battles hard. We've got grinders like myself and [Cooke] and [Kunitz].
"We've got a very physical team. I think we've got a great mixture here. It's a matter of putting it all together."
Exactly, Shero said, adding that players who aren't as physical get similar results through means such as playing well positionally and boxing out opponents. He cited defensemen Paul Martin and Ben Lovejoy, who are adept at getting their sticks on pucks that are being controlled by opponents.
In 2008-09, Shero became concerned about his club. At or near the trade deadline late that regular season, he acquired Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams, who all could dish out hits.
"Those guys added an element, and, at crunch time, it really paid off for us," Shero said. "When we won the Cup, as we went through the playoffs, teams looked at us as a skilled team with Crosby and Malkin, but I think Pittsburgh surprised a lot of people with our hard work and our physical play, and that's an element of our game we established a few years ago."
In 2007-08, the Penguins ranked 17th with 1,557 hits. The next season, the Cup year, they climbed to sixth with 1,939. Last season, they finished third (2,154). They are on pace this season to finish with 2,165.
First Published October 29, 2010 12:00 am