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Penguins' Michalek snuffs opposing teams' snipers

| Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Zbynek Michalek smiled when recently asked about his sudden offensive surge.

When the subject switched to defense, his face turned serious.

Michalek's recent goal-scoring binge is nice, but his true value to the Penguins is a special ability to silence star players. Starting tonight in Game 1 against Tampa Bay, Michalek's assignment figures to be stopping Lightning star Steven Stamkos.

Battling the game's stars is something Michalek craves.

"I like playing against the best players," he said. "It's something I take a lot of pride in."

Although the Penguins boast two defensive units capable of giving opposing lines fits, coach Dan Bylsma made it clear that the duo of Michalek and Paul Martin likely will play against Tampa Bay's top line.

Michalek and Martin struggled early in the season with the Penguins' system, but the duo gelled in the second half of the campaign. They will assume the shutdown tandem role this spring, similar to how the Penguins used Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill during the 2009 Stanley Cup run.

"With Brooks (Orpik) coming back and getting back with Kris (Letang) — they have really assumed the (opponent's) second line," Bylsma said. "Z and Marty have been that pair for the past 20 games, and will continue to be that way."

Bylsma rarely sheds light on his plans for a series, but calling Michalek and Martin " that pair" is a pretty fair indication that the veterans will be asked to keep Tampa's stars in check.

Michalek is a plus-10 over his past 13 games and clearly has impressed his new teammates. A fearless penalty-killer, Michalek blocked 149 shots this season.

His goaltender has noticed.

"Z reminds me of Brooks a little bit, because he goes after ever shot," Marc-Andre Fleury said. "He's very good at getting in front of pucks. When he's going good, there's not a lot of guys that can get the shot past him, which is good for me."

Few players in hockey shoot with more frequency — or precision — than Stamkos, whose one-timer is arguably the NHL's best. Tampa Bay possesses a terrific power play, and its top weapon is Stamkos' lethal shot. Michalek always is willing to sacrifice his body, and likely will be shadowing Stamkos when the Lightning have a man advantage.

"I feel like my defensive game is better now than it has been all season," Michalek said.

Dealing with Michalek has been frustrating for the game's best players. Alex Ovechkin, Stamkos and Ilya Kovalchuk — three Eastern Conference snipers who generally occupy the same side of the ice as Michalek — have combined for just three goals in 14 games against the Penguins.

"Right away, I was impressed with his work ethic," Fleury said. "He always plays hard, and he studies a lot. He's very smart, but he's tough, too. I think he scares players a little bit, because he's very mobile, agile, and he reads the play well."

Michalek has played in seven career playoff games, yet the Penguins believed his calm demeanor and shutdown ability would mesh perfectly with a team that has become a playoff regular.

General manager Ray Shero signed Michalek to a 5-year, $20 million contract last summer because of the difference he could make in the postseason.

"I'm ready to go," Michalek said. "I'm happy with how my game has developed this season. The playoffs are going to be a challenge, but I'm up for it."

Additional Information:

Lock them down

Three of the NHL's greatest snipers • Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk • were quiet against the Penguins this season. All three play primarily on the left side of the offensive zone, where Zbynek Michalek has been stationed. A look at their stats against the Penguins:

Stamkos (4 games): 1 goal, 4 assists

Ovechkin (4 games): 1 goal, 0 assists

Kovalchuck (6 games): 1 goal, 0 assists

* Kovalchuk's only goal against the Penguins came in overtime, with Michalek in the penalty box. Michalek was not on the ice for the Ovechkin and Stamkos goals.

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