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Penguins

Pens' Orpik's overall play is a hit

| Friday, March 27, 2009

The final hit count was Brooks Orpik 10, Dion Phaneuf 9 -- but, really, the game Wednesday between the Penguins and Calgary Flames just sort of played out that way.

Orpik, a Penguins defenseman who rates second in the NHL with 317 hits, swears he "was not attempting to one-up" Phaneuf, his Flames counterpart and the player most often shown in video highlights delivering crushing blows to opposing skaters.

In fact, Orpik does not believe Phaneuf -- whose big hits have made him popular among fans and somewhat feared by league players, at least if various anonymous polls are accurate -- is the defenseman worth watching for Calgary.

"When I watch their team, to be honest, Cory Sarich is a lot more responsible when it comes to playing physical but being a lot more under control that Phaneuf is," Orpik said Wednesday morning. "Phaneuf runs around a lot more and takes himself out of position a lot more; if you watch a guy like Sarich, he plays his position really well and he's a lot more responsible defensively."

The same is said of Orpik these days, especially by Penguins teammates such as defenseman Rob Scuderi, who labeled Orpik "our leader without a letter."

On the money
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik remains a big bopper with 317 hits, enough to rank second among NHL players as of Thursday. However, he has hit his stride as an overall defenseman. A look at how his current stats compare with his best single-season production:
CATEGORY 2008-09 TOTAL BEST TOTAL (SEASON)
Goals 2 2 (2005-06)
Assists 16 10 (2007-08)
Points 18 11 (2007-08)
Shots 34 59 (2006-07)
Plus/minus 7 11 (2007-08)
Source: NHL.com

"To me, he's gotten steadily better every year," Scuderi said. "So I'm not surprised he's a little bit better this year than he was last year. I've played with him a long time and that's just the way he's grown as a player."

In the first season of a six-year contract worth $22.5 million, Orpik, 28, has grown into the type of steady defensemen that most past Stanley Cup teams -- think Ken Daneyko for the 1995, 2000 and 2003 championship New Jersey clubs (only Orpik can skate) -- would not have traded for flashier players such as Phaneuf.

The Penguins sure wouldn't deal Orpik, whom they drafted 18th overall at the 2000 entry draft.

"He really sets the tone for our defense, and even for our team," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It wasn't too long ago when things weren't always good here and everything was a lot more difficult. (Orpik) has lived that, so he keeps everything at a pretty even-keel. That's important. It keeps the guys on this team level-headed."

Orpik's overall game has reached a more consistent level this season. He has already matched a career-high in goals and set a new benchmark for points while building upon his reputation as a leading hitter and upper-echelon shot-blocker (16th overall with 145).

This followed a playoff run last season that general manager Ray Shero recently said "probably was the best Orpik (had) ever played."

"He's always been a physical player, but his positioning has really improved the past couple of years," said Sergei Gonchar, Orpik's partner on the Penguins' top defensive pairing since late last season.

"All the people recognized how good he was hitting and being physical, and nobody is paying attention to those parts of his game. That says everything about how good of an overall defenseman he's become."

A veteran of 11 seasons, Sarich said Orpik gaining recognition as a player as opposed to simply a huge hitter is "really special."

"Defensemen only get recognized for being better when we add something to our game," Sarich said. "Sometimes it is adding offense for a defensive defenseman, but it can also be just becoming better defensively for a big hitter.

"It looks to me like he's improved offensively and defensively, and that's not easy."

Orpik's maturation as a player has coincided with a rise to leadership on a club for which he serves as the longest-tenured player. On a team consisting of "lots of guys that don't wear letters but say or do the right thing," Orpik stands out, Scuderi said.

At no point this season was that more evident than in the early months the Penguins played without Gonchar and former defenseman Ryan Whitney -- ice-time leaders from last year that began this campaign on the long-term injury list with respective left shoulder and left foot injuries.

Suddenly a perceived-as-deep defensive corps needed to count upon a rookie, Alex Goligoski, and a second-year player, Kris Letang, to fill significant roles. Those players turned to Orpik, though he refused any credit for Goligoski leading team defensemen in scoring before his reassignment to the AHL or Letang's progression as a rounded defenseman.

"To me, he's had such confidence since the end of last season, and young guys go toward that when they need help," Gonchar said. "Everything he's doing well on the ice this year -- he's doing it off the ice for this team, too."

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