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Penguins defenseman Engelland is quickly adapting to forward spot

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 10:48 p.m.
The Penguins' Deryk Engelland (5) beats Islanders' Matt Donovan (left) and puts a shot behind goalie Evgeni Nabokov for a goal in the third period in Pittsburgh on Friday, Oct. 25, 2013. The Islanders won 4-3.

Deryk Engelland sat at his locker Monday at Southpointe, his head down. When he looked up, Engelland did a double take when he noticed about 10 reporters hovering over him.

His teammates are doing a double take, too.

Engelland, the veteran defenseman the Penguins moved to forward a few weeks ago, has scored twice and has been more comfortable at right wing than even he expected.

“You know, it's pretty incredible,” center Joe Vitale said.

Engelland had his most successful game at forward Saturday in Columbus. Not only did he score the game-winning goal, but Engelland and his line — he was joined by Vitale and winger Dustin Jeffrey the past two games — were on the ice in the final stages while protecting a lead, perhaps a sign of confidence from coach Dan Bylsma.

“He looked completely comfortable in that situation,” Bylsma said.

Engelland said he still doesn't feel comfortable at forward. Prior to this season, he played one game at right wing. He also played briefly at forward during a career that has seen Engelland play five years of junior hockey and seven years in the minor leagues.

Engelland almost exclusively has been a defenseman all of his hockey life.

“I don't know if I'd say that it's been smooth,” Engelland said. “It's definitely a challenge for me. It's gotten easier each game I've played, though.”

Engelland's recent play suggests he might remain at forward for the remainder of the season. He scored a goal that gave the Penguins a lead in the third period against the Islanders on Oct. 25. Engelland buried a one-timer to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead over Columbus on Saturday.

“I'm so impressed,” Vitale said. “The first time we played together, I thought, ‘OK, there's the lineup. I'm with Engo. Let's slow it down.' I just wanted to get through it and not let the other team score. It's been incredibly surprising how efficient he's been and how good he's been in the offensive zone. What a job he's done.”

Engelland didn't figure to see much playing time this season. The Penguins' established top-four defense rotation includes Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and the injured Rob Scuderi. Matt Niskanen has been among the league's best defensemen in the season's first month, and the young duo of Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo has played well.

Simply put, there wasn't much room in the Penguins' blue line rotation.

The bottom six in the forward rotation, however, was a different story. Bylsma has shuffled through different third and fourth line combinations on many nights, and players such as Harry Zolnierczyk and Chris Conner have already received looks on the third and fourth lines.

Engelland, who has impressed teammates with his puck protection, quickness and instincts in the offensive zone, credited assistant coach Tony Granato with showing him the ropes at forward.

“Tony is pretty big on helping me with wall play, the neutral zone transition, chipping pucks deep,” Engelland said. “Plus all the guys have helped me at what I need to get better at.”

Those teammates couldn't be more impressed.

“He's just a big man who can skate,” Jeffrey said. “He's watched a lot of video to get better. I think he's done a great job.”

Having Engelland at forward gives the Penguins a physical presence, and if a defenseman suffers an injury — such as Scuderi's ankle injury in Toronto on Oct. 26 — Engelland can slide back into his natural position.

Still, the more he plays forward, the more his teammates like what they see.

“I'm so impressed with how patient he's been with the puck,” left wing Tanner Glass said. “Honestly, he's doing everything well. He's a really smart hockey player.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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