The Pittsburgh Penguins headed into the final weekend of the regular season having wrapped up the top seed in the Eastern Conference after sitting atop the conference standings for more than a month. They've done so despite making major changes to their roster through trades while seeing many of their top players -- including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and James Neal -- miss sizeable chunks of time with injuries.
Through all the line juggling and roster shakeups, there have been certain key players who have provided a consistent spark night in and night out, with Pascal Dupuis leading the way.
"Over the past 20 games, Pascal Dupuis has been our best performer," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said before his team's game Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. "Looking at different matchups and different lineups, he's out there and playing a fantastic game and leading the way with our team and how we play."
It's an interesting distinction for Dupuis, whose career arc doesn't necessarily fit the mold of the Penguins roster. On a team with 10 first-round picks, Dupuis is one of just three undrafted players (along with Chris Kunitz and Mark Eaton) who has dressed in more than one game this year. And on a roster that has been ravaged by injuries, Dupuis has missed just two games during the past four seasons. That kind of consistency has been invaluable for the Penguins, especially when the team made four high-profile acquisitions before the NHL Trade Deadline.
"I don't think there's a role he hasn't played on this team. He does the music [in the locker room] and he's making sure guys are all aware of a dinner. Last night he was sending out texts," said Brenden Morrow, who was acquired by Pittsburgh before the deadline along with Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen. "We have stalls right next to each other. I hadn't been traded before, so I was able to talk about some things with him. He approached me about it, which doesn't happen very often. He had been through it before; great teammate."
Though he's one of Pittsburgh's most tenured players, Dupuis knows all about being traded. His NHL career began with four strong seasons with the Minnesota Wild. But the consistency that has become Dupuis' trademark was hard to establish when he was dealt to the New York Rangers in February 2007. Six games later, the Rangers traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers. By the time he was dealt to Pittsburgh in 2008 as part of the Marian Hossa trade, Dupuis had played for four teams in one year.
"It was within a year, so it's not like I bounced around for two or three years and I couldn't find a role or couldn't find a place to settle. I guess some teams wanted me, as I like to say," said Dupuis, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. "I'm happy to be in Pittsburgh, love the city, my wife and kids love the place. We want to be back, so we'll see what is going to happen."
While Dupuis was overshadowed by the five-time All-Star Hossa when he first came to town, he quickly found chemistry playing on a line with Crosby. He had shown flashes of his offensive ability in Minnesota, most notably during a 20-goal season in 2002-03. But few could have predicted the kind of success he's enjoyed this season.
With one game remaining in the regular season, Dupuis has 20 goals and 37 points in 47 games; an 0.8-point-per-game pace that is easily the highest of his career. He also leads the League in plus/minus and ranks among the League leaders in shots.
"I think he's probably the hardest-working guy on the whole team," Jokinen said of Dupuis. "He does all the little details. He's good at forecheck, good at backcheck. He's a great guy to play with."
For the first three months of this season, it was easy to attribute that offensive success to being placed on a line with Crosby, who led the NHL in scoring for much of the season. But Dupuis' production actually increased after Crosby was sidelined with a broken jaw at the end of March. Shortly after Crosby was shelved, Dupuis enjoyed a season-high six-game scoring streak in which he collected 10 points and the team went 5-1-0.
It was hardly the first time that Dupuis led the team with an extended scoring run. He ended last season with a 17-game scoring streak in which he collected 22 points and the Penguins went 12-4-1 before being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.
"My role has always been killing penalties and bringing energy. It evolved a little bit," Dupuis said. "By playing with great players, you learn in practices and away from the rink and you talk hockey with these great minds. You try to look a little bit at what they do in practices and games to maybe bring some of their abilities to your game. Even if I'm 34 years old, I'm trying to be a sponge out there and take everything in."
Dupuis has silenced any critics who may have doubted him when he was passed over in the draft or traded three times in a year. But there is still some unfinished business the Quebec native hopes to address.
On the Penguins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Dupuis played a lesser role, going pointless in 16 games and being relegated mainly to fourth-line duty. With an expanded role on a team that is among the favorites to capture the Cup in 2013, he is looking to make his mark.
"I know my strengths and I try to work on them as much as I can. It's bringing that every night, this intensity. I just love being around the locker room and on the ice," Dupuis said. "Obviously my role was a little less [in 2009] than it is right now. I told my wife that I'm going to win the Cup again and my role is going to be bigger. Hopefully this is the year."
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