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Defensemen stand tall despite playing short-handed

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 11:20 p.m.

NEW YORK — Brooks Orpik was in the trainer's room, Robert Bortuzzo in the press box.

The Penguins' defensive system — the one questioned by former players for being too sophisticated, too risky — remained, and the five players who manned the final 40 minutes on the blue line credited that for their 4-2 victory in Game 4 of the second-round series against the New York Rangers.

“Everybody knows this system,” said rookie Olli Maatta, who played more than 17 minutes. “And that's the thing. It wasn't that tough being out there with different guys at different times because we all communicate, and we all know this system well.”

Orpik, the longest-tenured player on the Penguins roster, knows the system better than anyone. He also knows his body better than anyone and deemed before Game 4 that he was able to participate. Orpik had missed the previous five games with an unknown injury.

The veteran played well in the first period, leveling Rangers center Brad Richards with a hit during his opening shift.

However, late in the period, Orpik initiated a hit against New York's Mats Zuccarello. Orpik's right knee buckled violently toward his left knee.

This left the Penguins with only five defensemen for the remainder of the contest. Coach Dan Bylsma, however, did not second guess himself for adding Orpik to the lineup.

After all, Orpik's injury at the end of the first period was unrelated to the previous injury.

“The decision to play him tonight was easy,” Bylsma said.

Playing with five defensemen during the final 40 minutes of a road playoff game against a desperate opponent ordinarily is a recipe for defeat.

“You just have to block that out,” said defenseman Paul Martin, who logged 30:05 of ice time. “And you have to hope you're in good enough shape to (pull it off).”

The Penguins, who played a portion of the second period without Kris Letang because of an equipment problem, orchestrated a defensive attack that simply stifled the Rangers. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has permitted just five goals in four games during this series, and though he has been brilliant at times, he enjoyed a fairly easy night in Game 4, facing only three shots in the final period.

The Penguins defensemen blocked only seven shots, which isn't an alarmingly high number. Blocking shots wasn't necessary, though, because they barely allowed the Rangers puck possession.

“Those are the guys who deserve most of the credit for this win,” left wing Jussi Jokinen said. “I don't know what more you can ask from a group of defensemen.”

The plan entering the contest was to leave Letang and Martin together despite Orpik's return. Penguins coaches have been impressed by the team's dominance when Letang and Martin are paired.

When Orpik sustained the injury, though, the Penguins were in the unenviable position of their defensive pairs becoming discombobulated.

“It wasn't ideal,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Ideally you'd like rhythm with the same partner. But we are pretty darn clear on the system that we're running here.”

With or without Orpik, the Penguins have a chance to finish the Rangers on Friday at Consol Energy Center. They will attempt to do so with a blossoming blue line that is playing with great confidence. While many members of the defense credited the forwards with outstanding defensive work, the five players left standing on the blue line were quite satisfied.

“Not bad,” Maatta said, forcing a smile. “I think it was a really good job.”

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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