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Ian Cole raising game for Penguins against Capitals

Defensive defenseman chipping in offensively for Pittsburgh

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WASHINGTON -- To appreciate what Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ian Cole can do, replay one shift from their 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series.

Cole and defense partner Justin Schultz were out against the Capitals' top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie with the score tied 2-2 in the third period.

The Penguins are spreading ice time relatively evenly among their defensemen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Kris Letang sidelined by a neck injury. Cole logged much of his 17:01 on Thursday against the Capitals' top six forwards: Ovechkin (6:03), Backstrom (6:01), Oshie (7:28), Marcus Johansson (5:01), Evgeny Kuznetsov (6:46) and Justin Williams (6:46).

Cole stood in the slot with the Capitals attacking on the rush. Ovechkin sent a backhand pass across from left to right, and Backstrom took a shot. Cole went down on one knee, turned his body to the left and blocked it.

He set a Penguins record for blocked shots in the regular season with 194 -- 78 more than anyone else -- and leads them in the playoffs with 22. He blocked eight shots Thursday to set an NHL career high and tie for the second-highest total for the Penguins in a playoff game since the statistic became official in 2005-06. Brooks Orpik blocked 10 against the Detroit Red Wings on June 2, 2008.

"I think it's awesome when you sit on the bench and see him put his body on the line," defenseman Olli Maatta said. "It just fires you up."

Cole is smart enough to know blocked shots are good and bad. They're good because they show courage and commitment. They're bad because if you're blocking shots, it means you don't have the puck, your opponents have a chance to score and you have a chance of getting hurt. He'd much rather deflect the pass before the shot, or snuff out the play in the neutral zone and spark transition, or keep possession in the offensive zone.

"I think that's a last resort," Cole said. "It's not like I'm looking to just try to block shots. It's just something that happens out of desperation, when something does inevitably break down."

Video: PIT@VAN: Cole beats Miller through traffic

Though Cole is no Bobby Orr, he has raised his game since Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford acquired him from the St. Louis Blues on March 2, 2015. Cole played 23 games during Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run last year and scored the first goal in Game 4 of the Final against the San Jose Sharks. He tied his career high in goals (five) and set a career high in points (26) this season.

"How he plays now is how I thought he would play," Rutherford said. "I felt just him getting an opportunity, his game would get elevated, and it did."

After Cole blocked Backstrom's shot, the teams changed lines. Schultz held the puck behind the Pittsburgh net and Cole went to the corner, looked up ice and saw Penguins forward Scott Wilson get open. The Penguins like to push it when possible, and Cole has been cognizant of doing it.

Schultz passed to Cole in the corner, and Cole didn't have to look. Without hesitation, he sent a stretch pass up the left-wing boards. Wilson sent a pass past Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk into the middle, springing Penguins center Nick Bonino on a breakaway. Bonino scored what became the winning goal.

Cole has set an NHL career high in playoff points with four in six games. Game 2 is here Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"I think the way the game is trending and has been trending for a couple years, everyone needs to be able to play defense; everyone needs to be able to contribute offensively," Cole said. "There's not just offensive guys or just defensive guys. Everybody needs to be able to do everything."

It takes a lot of players performing a lot of roles to win the Stanley Cup. Cole was part of it last year and wants to be again, defending, blocking shots, killing penalties, chipping in offensively when he can.

"He's not flashy by any stretch, but it's the simplicity of his game and the competitiveness to his game that we like most," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "When you look at the group of defensemen that we have, he brings a little bit of a different dimension in that regard. We've got some puck movers. We've got some mobile guys. [Cole] brings that element of stiffness to his game and simplicity that we think makes us a better team."

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