Friday, September 16, 2011
Goals could be a problem early in the season or for as long as Sidney Crosby is out. Evgeni Malkin is back, better, stronger and, according to those who should know, determined to regain his status as a world-class player. James Neal has settled in. But where are the other goals going to come from?
The power play could be an issue again. There's really no need to mention how bad it was without Crosby and Malkin in the first-round playoff collapse against the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring. Why ruin your breakfast? Just say it ...
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But one thing the Penguins won't be lacking even with Crosby out is a strong presence in the room. The "C" belongs to Crosby for good reason; he's a terrific captain, the best player and hardest worker on the team. But he's not the only leader. It's Brooks Orpik's team, too.
That was important last season when Crosby missed the second half with his concussion problems. It's just as important this season with Crosby expected to miss at least the early games.
"I've kind of been aware of it for a while," Orpik said of his lofty place in the team hierarchy. "A lot of guys don't ask you a lot of questions, but they're watching how you approach things and how you handle yourself every day. They learn with their eyes and their ears. You have to always be aware of that."
Orpik gives teammates plenty to think about. It's no wonder they voted him their Players' Player award last season, their highest honor. "It's not a popularity contest by any means," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said at the time. "It's about respect. It's about being a professional."
Orpik works out like a madman. He is tough. He is physical. He will hit you and knock you into next week. He plays hurt. He blocks shots even if it means breaking a bone, as it did last season when he broke his right index finger blocking a shot by San Jose's Patrick Marleau. He kills penalties. He gets the puck out of his zone. He ...
Did I mention Orpik plays hurt?
After last season, just like after the 2009-10 season, he had surgery to repair a muscle tear in his lower abdomen. "They tell me if you get one side done, you're probably going to have to get the other side done at some point, too, because you tend to overcompensate," he said. Doctors use a piece of mesh to strengthen the damaged area. The rehab after the surgery is brutal. Of course, playing with the injury down the stretch the past two seasons was no day at the beach, either.
"I'm not 100 percent yet, but I'm close," Orpik said. "I'm right where I want to be at this point. I don't know if they're going to throw me into contact or games right away. They could, but there's probably no sense in that."
Orpik figures to be ready for the opener Oct. 6 at Vancouver even if he isn't full-go early in training camp, which begins Saturday. He said he can't wait to get started again. That collapse against the Lightning, remember? The Penguins -- playing without the injured Crosby and Malkin as well as without Matt Cooke (suspension) -- blew a three games-to-one lead in the series. They scored just four goals in the final three games and were beaten, 1-0, in Game 7 at home.
"We should have been in the second round," Orpik said. "You don't want it to consume you, but it really starts to sting as you watch the team that beat you keep moving on in the playoffs."
It seems all the Penguins are eager for the opening of camp. Every player was in town by Monday, Orpik said. Many have been skating together all week. I asked Orpik for his thoughts about three players in particular.
On Malkin: "He looks really good physically. You hate to say it, but maybe his [knee] injury was almost a blessing in disguise for him. It put things in perspective for him. He started to work out like he used to and really pushed himself. He looks a lot stronger. I don't know if it's because of his rehab or that he has a chip on his shoulder, but he seems really motivated this year."
On Neal, who came to the Penguins with defenseman Matt Niskanen at the trade deadline in February: "I think both of those guys are a lot more comfortable now that they've been with us for a while. I think they're going to be a lot better this season. You have to be comfortable off the ice to be comfortable on it."
And, of course, on Crosby: "I don't know; he looks good to us. He's been skating with us. It just seems like he has a lot more energy and is a lot more upbeat."
Orpik didn't predict when Crosby will be ready to play. No one knows when that will be.
Nor did Orpik have to promise to do his best to keep the team together until Crosby returns. That's just a given. He'll continue to be a great leader in his own way.
"From past experience, you can tell when guys try to do something extra," Orpik said. "It doesn't come across as natural. It comes across almost as a little fake. In my opinion, that's exactly what you shouldn't do. Guys stop paying attention to what you're doing and stop respecting you.
"Just be yourself. That should be good enough."
In Orpik's case, it's plenty good enough.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author