|Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik has incorporated some of the hard-hitting style of NHL Hall of Famer Scott Stevens into his own game.
Brooks Orpik video highlights
The only thing Orpik and Sykora really have in common is their goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh, but more than once this season Orpik has approached Sykora to discuss a subject only Sykora can talk about inside the Penguins dressing room.
"Scott Stevens was my big guy," Orpik told NHL.com, "and with Petr Sykora here, we pick his brain about him since he played with him in Jersey."
It's hardly a surprise that Orpik grew up an avid Stevens admirer. If you look closely at the way he plays, it should become obvious the Buffalo area native adopted at least some of Stevens' grit and big-hit ability.
Now that Orpik has figured out what he can and can't do on the ice as a stay-at-home defenseman, he has become one of the fiercest and most important players on the Penguins roster, someone who will undoubtedly earn a big raise when he enters unrestricted free agency following this season.
"I don't want to say I pattern my game after him (Stevens)," Orpik said, "but I still watch videos of him and try to incorporate some of the stuff he did."
"Some" is the key word there because Orpik will likely never develop the same offensive instincts Stevens had in his Hall of Fame career. Orpik, though, serves as the perfect partner for someone who thrives in the offensive spotlight.
That's why Penguins coach Michel Therrien loves his top pair of Orpik and Sergei Gonchar, a duo he put together in late February and constantly matches against the opposition's most talented forwards.
Gonchar, of course, thrives in the offensive spotlight, which allows Orpik to patrol the back end and be the rock while his defensive partner and talented forwards such as Sidney Crosby, Marian Hossa, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Malone and Sykora work their magic up front.
Orpik finished sixth in the NHL this season with 225 hits and was 32nd with 125 blocks. He entered Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with 53 playoff hits, sixth in the League, and 22 blocks, tops on the Penguins in that department.
"I remember the first year he signed here after the lockout they tried me and (Gonchar) together for a handful of games and for whatever reason it didn't work," Orpik said. "I think now our communication level is really good and that's what helps us a lot."
"Brooks is doing the stuff that goes unnoticed," Gonchar added. "It's the stuff that helps win hockey games."
Orpik said it took him a long time to understand how to use his size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and physicality to his advantage.
During his rookie season in 2003-04, when the Penguins were a miserable 23-47-8-4, Orpik finished a minus-36 because he got caught giving up too many odd-man rushes by taking himself out of the play while trying to make a big hit.
Stevens would do that early in his career, too, before changing his ways in New Jersey. Orpik had to change his thinking or else he wouldn't survive as a top-four, and perhaps not even a top-six, defenseman in this League.
"When you go in looking for a big hit, that's when you get caught out of position and exposed in the neutral zone," Orpik said. "You have to pick your spots a lot more. And going back to playing with Gonch, I don't want to say I cover for him but I have to be responsible defensively because he likes to take chances offensively. If he's caught up I can't take chance looking for big hits in the neutral zone."
Orpik improved by 33 on his plus-minus rating in 2005-06. He was a plus-4 last season and a plus-11 this season with a career-high 11 points on a goal and 10 assists. He has also more than halved his penalty minutes in the last four season, slicing from 127 as a rookie to 57 this past regular season.
Penguins General Manager Ray Shero credited assistant coach Andre Savard for Orpik's development into a top-pair defenseman.
"When he was younger, he was going for the big hit a lot, but he was going forward and the play was going the other way," Shero said. "He was the guy they chipped it by to get a 2-on-1. It took him a while to figure it out."
Shero referenced the hit Orpik had on Flyers wing Scott Hartnell behind the goal early in the second period. He rode Hartnell a distance and then drove him into the end boards. The officials felt it was a holding penalty, but Shero disagrees.
"Look at that hit, or penalty on Hartnell," Shero said. "He's defending. He's got good lateral movement. He's strong, gets him and finishes him. I thought it was a heck of a hit instead of just going forward all the time.
"Brooks has the size, the strength, and is a really good skater."
He also brings an intimidation factor, Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said, which only enhances his value when he's on the ice with the Penguins sensational forwards.
"Maybe he's getting more attention now but he's been physical and hard on the top players all year," Scuderi said. "Maybe it makes them think twice. They don't want to come into the net. They don't want to go anywhere with their head down. He makes them think about what they're doing and he does an awesome job at it."
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