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Atlantic: For Orpik, the hits keep coming

by Adam Schwartz
Playing for a team boasting marquee players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, you might not focus on Brooks Orpik. But Orpik is an integral part of the Penguins' success.

Orpik, a defensive defenseman, is third in the League and first in the Atlantic Division with 134 hits. Orpik said he learned to take the body from watching one of the best hitters in hockey history, Hall of Famer Scott Stevens, when he was growing up.

"I guess when you're younger and you watch NHL games, you watch those above you, watch guys you like and certain guys stick out to you," Orpik told "Looking back on that, I tried to emulate guys that played a similar style to me. Scott Stevens was the one guy I used to watch a lot when I was younger. I watched him when he was in Washington and he made a big name for himself here in Jersey. I always really liked Adam Graves, who was a forward. He was a forward, but he was pretty physical himself. I think those two guys are the two guys that pop up in my mind."

Orpik, who debuted in the 2002-03 season, points to his maturation as a major reason why he has become the defenseman that he is today. 

"I think maturity comes with how long you've been in the League," Orpik said. "If I watched videos of my rookie year I think I'd be laughing at myself. I think the biggest thing about maturity is how you approach the game. I think when you are younger you are a little too anxious and you go looking for hits.

"Maybe you approach the game thinking, 'I'm going to get three big hits this game.' I think, especially as you get older, your role changes as a defenseman. It's hard to be physical in the neutral zone now with all of the speed of the game. There's certain games where there a lot more opportunities."

While Orpik relishes a big hit, he knows that being too aggressive can cause odd-man rushes in the other direction, so he is cognizant of when to make the best of the opportunity.

"I really think you have to limit your chances of going for a big hit," Orpik said. "You really get in trouble as a defenseman as you start going forward because the play can go the other way on you quick. Guys are so skilled and they always have their heads up and there's no holding or hooking in the neutral zone like there used to be."

Orpik realizes that since the NHL has sped up with the rules against hooking and holding that big hits aren't as numerous, but they are more intense.

"I think the speed of the game makes for bigger collisions," Orpik said. "But there are fewer of them. You can't really take a chance and you have to be sure that you are going to get your guy. You don't want the other team going back with a two-on-one or three-on-one.

"I think a lot of it, too, is that we're a trapping team. As a defenseman on this team, you don't have to step up too much in the neutral zone. Most of the physical play on our team takes play in the corners or in front of our own net."

Even though Orpik is a defensive defenseman, he is still one of the better skating defenseman on the Penguins. Orpik recognizes that his skating prowess helps him in the hitting department.

"I think when you talk about hitting the fundamental part of it is timing and skating. Guys that are good hitters are good skaters. I think the two biggest things are timing and skating. If the players aren't as good skaters they can't catch up to the play."

WJC has Atlantic prospects aplenty -- Some of the best players in the NHL today got their start in the World Junior Championship and the tournament is full of Atlantic Division prospects this year.

New Jersey has Canada's Patrice Cormier, Team USA's Mike Hoeffel and first-round pick Mattias Tedenby playing for Sweden.

Cormier, who is a rugged depth forward, and Tedenby, a skilled forward who had 5 points in his first five games, played for the gold medal Monday night. 

The Rangers sported Tomas Kundratek of the Czech Republic and Eveny Grachev of Russia who had 4 points in 6 games. 

The Islanders had the most prospects of Atlantic Division teams with American Blake Kessel, brother of Bruins star forward Phil Kessel, Jyri Niemi of Finland, Kirill Petrov of Russia, who was held pointless, and skilled forward David Ullstrom of Sweden, who has 4 points and a plus-4 rating in five games.

The Flyers had the highest-drafted prospect in the Atlantic Division with James van Riemsdyk, who was drafted second in 2007 and played on America's top unit with Jordan Schroder and Colin Wilson.

Rest does Zubrus well -- Devils right wing Dainius Zubrus, who sat out the Devils' past two practices because of "maintenance" issues, scored twice Sunday in New Jersey's 4-3 overtime victory against the Senators.

"We've played a lot of games," Devils coach Brent Sutter told the Bergen Record. "We thought we'd be smart and let him rest today."
"Just maintenance," Zubrus said. "It's just something that was a little bit sore and that's it."

Zubrus, who had 10 goals in 82 games last season, already has 10 goals in 38 games this season. Zubrus forced his way onto a line with Brian Gionta and Patrik Elias when Brian Rolston, who was signed to supply more offense, went down with an ankle injury.

"I really think you have to limit your chances of going for a big hit. You really get in trouble as a defenseman as you start going forward because the play can go the other way on you quick. Guys are so skilled and they always have their heads up and there's no holding or hooking in the neutral zone like there used to be."
-- Brooks Orpik

Rolston has since come back, but Zubrus remains with Elias and Gionta. Zubrus, who played with Alex Ovechkin when he was in Washington, is clearly used to playing with a club's best players and flourishes in these situations.

Comrie returns to Edmonton -- Mike Comrie, who played for the Oilers for three seasons and is a native of Edmonton, doesn't exactly look forward to going back home ever since he was traded from the Oilers in 2003. 

Comrie admitted that he didn't want to stay in Edmonton then and that growing up there made that decision particularly difficult.

"They wanted me to stay there when I was young and I wanted out," Comrie told Newsday. "It's a situation that was a long time ago. Because I'm from there I've seen it (booing former Oilers) happen year after year when guys come back. It's just the way it is; you play hard, you work through it and try to focus on the game. It's my hometown, but you try not to think about that too much."

Comrie, who is one of the Islanders' best offensive players and has 13 points in 23 games this season, is aware that he is trade bait while playing for the team with the fewest points in the League.

"You try not to think about it," Comrie said to Newsday of the March 4 trade deadline. "Right now, we're worrying about our hockey games and trying not to think about anything further than that. I have a great relationship with the management. I'm playing with two young kids, and we're all playing hard."

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