Penguins: Physical Orpik, fleet Gonchar are top defensive pairing and a formidable combination
While Sergei Gonchar's best assets are his puck skills, he has shown that he is not adverse to contact. Just ask Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings, who was laid out by Gonchar during last season's Stanley Cup final.
Hits like the one that took the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin off his skates in the playoffs last season is a hallmark of Brooks Orpik's career with the Penguins.
Sergei Gonchar, celebrating a goal in the playoffs last season, is more offensive-minded than linemate Brooks Orpik.
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Brooks Orpik and Sergei Gonchar make up the Penguins' No. 1 defensive pairing, and it's a pretty effective one.
Intriguingly, they may be so good together because they're so different.
Orpik, who is 6 feet 2, 219 pounds, enters the Penguins' game against New Jersey at 7:38 tonight at Mellon Arena with 110 hits. Only five NHL players have more.
And while he will contribute the occasional point -- indeed, Orpik has 13 in 32 games this season -- that is, at best, a secondary facet of his game.
Gonchar, meanwhile, has a style that emphasizes finesse over the physical.
While he certainly isn't averse to contact (the guy does have 30 hits in 24 games, after all), his puck skills are his greatest asset.
• Game: New Jersey Devils at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Martin Brodeur for Devils.
• Penguins: Are on 5-0 run, their second-longest winning streak of season. ... Fleury does not have shutout in his past 37 regular-season games. ... Seven of 10 losses have been by three or more goals.
• Devils: Won both previous games at Mellon Arena this season. ... LW Patrik Elias has six-game points streak. ... Are allowing 26.8 shots per game, second-lowest total in league.
• Hidden stat: Devils are 12-1 when being outshot.
Gonchar quarterbacks the Penguins' power play -- not that anyone would brag about that this season -- and is one of the top 15 scorers among NHL defensemen despite missing 12 of 36 games because of a broken wrist.
The 19 points he has put up so far matches the best total Orpik has managed since making his NHL debut in 2002-03.
"We're different," Gonchar said. "And that's why we complete each other."
Now, it must be pointed out that Orpik and Gonchar do have at least a few things in common. Both are excellent skaters, are good bets to compete in the Olympics this winter and had significant injuries earlier this season.
In Orpik's case, the nature of his problem never was divulged, but the large brace he wears on his right knee offers a pretty good hint. Cumbersome as the brace appears to be, though, Orpik said he has come to accept it as just another piece of equipment.
"At first when I wore the brace, I said, 'There's no way I'm going to be able to wear this because it's so big and bulky,' " he said. "Now, I don't even notice it."
Although the injury that made the brace necessary forced him to miss four games, it is the only physical issue of consequence with which he has had to deal this season. That's a real plus for a guy who had grown accustomed to coping with lingering ailments.
"With the exception of my knee injury, this is the first time I've come in and actually just had to worry about playing," Orpik said.
"My body's the way I want it to be, in terms of strength and endurance, because I haven't had nagging injuries that I've had to put up with. This is the first time in a long time that I've really felt close to 100 percent."
Knocking Orpik out of the lineup isn't easy -- he missed just three games last season, and four in 2007-08 -- but he has come to appreciate the impact even seemingly minor injuries can have on performance.
"A lot of times, you try to play through little things, because they're not big enough to keep you out of the lineup," he said. "But at the same time, they kind of hinder you from trying to play the way you want every single night."
For Orpik, that means being physically involved. And, while he was criticized earlier in his career for straying out of position occasionally in an effort to land a seismic check, he has learned to be selective about when he delivers those.
"The physical presence he brings obviously keeps teams on their toes," said Penguins assistant coach Mike Yeo, who oversees the defense. "The best part about it is, he's able to bring that and stay controlled, play within the confines [of the Penguins' system].
"Some of it probably is learning. It's a learning process, when to do it, when not to do it. I think he has a better understanding of letting plays come to him instead of going to look for them."
It is imperative that Orpik pick his spots because his willingness to play a stay-at-home role is what allows Gonchar to get involved in the offense.
"We've developed the chemistry where I know what to expect from him, and he knows what to expect from me," Gonchar said. "That's why we have a good thing going."
First Published December 21, 2009 12:00 am