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Penguins' Orpik the hit of the Final

by Shawn P. Roarke
DETROIT -- Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik left his mark on the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps the most tell-tale signs of Orpik's contributions to the cause can be found in the bruises many of the Detroit forwards are sporting today.

Now, he hopes to leave a permanent mark on Friday night's Game 7 (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), which will determine the 2009 Stanley Cup champion.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, who has relied heavily on the 28-year-old defenseman since taking over the coaching reigns in February, believes Orpik to be up to the task at hand.

"Brooks Orpik is a guy that I think a lot of teams are looking for that element in their defensive corps -- a guy who can skate well and punish the other team's skill players in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "He does that repeatedly. He's a physical presence every night. Guys know when he's out there.

"He adds that physical element with a guy who can skate with the best the opposition has to offer. That's a huge asset for us. And something I think the other teams are aware of."

The Detroit Red Wings certainly knew when Orpik has been around, learning the same painful lesson absorbed by forwards from the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes -- Pittsburgh's first three victims in the 2009 postseason -- during this grueling seven-game Final series.

In the first six games, Orpik has delivered 103 hits. Only Detroit forward Darren Helm has more this postseason.

Orpik has always known how to hit. When you are 6-foot-2 and 219 pounds, you better know how to physically separate the puck carrier from the puck if you want to stick in the NHL. For a while, Orpik was known only for those spectacular collisions that resulted in opposing forwards splattered against the boards or those near misses that left Orpik out of position and out of the play as the opposition enjoyed an odd-man advantage in the attacking zone.

That, however, is no longer the case. Orpik's game is much more refined and complete now.

"His size is obviously an advantage, but his size with his foot speed is impressive," Hall Gill, another big-bodied defenseman with the Penguins, told "He can close a gap real quick. The improvement I've seen on him is he used to run around and look for big hits. Now, he doesn't run around, they just happen for him."

The numbers bear out that observation. In his first two full seasons, Orpik was a woeful minus-39. In his past three regular seasons, Orpik is a plus-25.

"I think as his game has improved last year and this year with his positioning and being patient," Bylsma said. "He's letting the game come to him and still getting those hits and being a factor that way. I think his game continues to improve."

Orpik says that the improvement is an ongoing process, a process that is mirrored by the improvement in his team; a team that has played in the Stanley Cup Final for each of the past two seasons.

"It's been a constant development, I think, for me," Orpik said. "There's obviously been some bumps in the road to where I've gotten here now. But, yeah, yeah, I've really enjoyed my time here, really. You just try to come and get better every day."
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