Penguins seeking to show their grit in opener against Flyers
The Penguins open the NHL season in Philadelphia today at 3:08 p.m. Above, Penguins left winger James Neal wraps up Flyers center Maxime Talbot in a 2011 game at Consol Energy Center.
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Asked earlier this week to describe new winger Tanner Glass' game, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma twice used the word "grit."
That's a commodity the Penguins always can use when they visit rival Philadelphia as they will this afternoon to open the lockout-shortened season.
For a little word, though, grit has a broad meaning in the NHL. It goes way beyond fighting or thundering hits or anything that can be found in a statistics packet.
"I think it's a willingness to battle on pucks, to be along the boards and win battles in front of the net, to outwork somebody to score a goal or outwork somebody to poke a puck away from them," said Penguins winger Chris Kunitz, a player who has a physical element to his game and could be called gritty despite holding a spot on the top line and having numbers that indicate he possesses a good deal of skill.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be a person who has to go out and scrum it up."
Glass, signed as a free agent over the summer, is expected to play on the fourth line. He has 39 points and 306 penalty minutes in 262 NHL games, but that's not what makes him a gritty player.
"I think grittiness comes in all kinds of forms," Glass said.
"It comes in the obvious things, like battling in front of the net, blocking shots, paying the price in the corner. And then you've got guys battling in the hard areas to score goals, too -- guys that score rebound goals, guys that fight through a tough check in a one-on-one to score a goal.
"Fighting is becoming a smaller and smaller part of it. I think it's still a useful beast on any team, but there's much more to grit than that."
The way the Penguins see it, even high-scoring, elite centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have a lot of grit.
"It starts with the top," said winger Matt Cooke, who despite exorcising the dirty-guy element from his game still could be characterized as gritty.
"Our best players, they don't shy away from any physical confrontation or aspect of the game, right down through our bottom line.
'You make it hard for teams to play against. Certain guys bring more of that element to their game and rely on that aspect more, but right from Sid and [Malkin], [defenseman Kris] Letang, they have that aspect to their game."
A handful of years ago, the Penguins often were criticized for not being gritty enough. General manager Ray Shero won't hear anything like that from inside his club's locker room these days.
"We have it all the way through our lineup, guys who get in there, get their nose kind of dirty and dig for pucks and try to win one-on-one battles," Kunitz said.
The players known more for their grit than for skill might be inspired by seeing highly skilled teammates such as Crosby and Malkin injecting a little sandpaper into their game.
But it works the other way, too.
"We want to led by example, but I think everyone's able to do that in their own way," Crosby said. "You're not going to see [Malkin] or I go throw too many big hits, but, when we see [Cooke] or [defenseman Brooks] Orpik throw a big hit, we want to make sure we're doing the best thing that we can do, and that's getting to those tough areas, although not necessarily throwing the body the way they do.
"Sometimes, it's just as much mental as it is physical, getting through tough games."
Crosby pointed out that it likely is too one-dimensional to define some players heavily by their grittiness, and Glass noted that "the speed of the game now is incredible, so you can't have guys that are pure grit and can't skate.
"I think we've got a good mix of guys that can get around the ice and are tough to play against."
Crosby sees grit in places you might not ordinarily look.
"There's a certain element where you have to sacrifice -- take a hit to make a play, to block a shot," he said. "You think of a goalie who's got to battle for position to see the puck and fight to cover it."
Being gritty isn't just a matter of a team having brute strength, and it isn't always easy.
"Team toughness is a different element," Kunitz said.
"Grittiness is if you see a [defenseman] coming and you have to eat it along the wall and wait until somebody comes to support you."
Which is bound to happen once or twice or perhaps 20 times today.
"You certainly see a lot of that when we play Philadelphia. You see it from both sides," Crosby said, then smiled.
"In those games, it's probably even a little bit more than grit."
Matchup: Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers, 3:08 p.m. today, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
TV, Radio: WPXI, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ilya Bryzgalov for Flyers.
Penguins: Led NHL last season with 3.33 goals per game and 33.9 shots per game. ... Had a .914 winning percentage when leading after two periods. ... Evgeni Malkin had three goals, nine points in six regular-season games vs. Philadelphia.
Flyers: Beat Penguins in six games in first round of playoffs. ... Former Penguin Max Talbot had career highs of 19 goals, 34 points last season. ... Claude Giroux had 1 goal, 8 points in five regular-season games vs. Penguins.
Hidden stat: The Penguins were 10-4-1 in afternoon games last season; the Flyers were 5-9-3.
First Published January 19, 2013 12:00 am