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Practicing against the best helps Orpik be the best

by Larry Wigge
PITTSBURGH -- Brooks Orpik was scribbling away at a crossword puzzle Monday after practice. There were still a few words vacant. Orpik said he'd work at it more while riding on the stationary bike.

"If I can't find a word," he said, laughing, "I just stuff something in there to show I'm finished with it."

But on the ice, the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman takes no shortcuts.

"The way I look at it is it's OK to be afraid to lose, but it's not OK to let it affect the way you play," he said.

Orpik, 28, leads all defensemen in hits in the playoffs with 93 -- 25 better than Chicago's Brent Seabrook. He's also developed a multi-faceted skill-set that is hard to acquire. Part of that is Orpik's drive and will to get better. Every day at the rink is a learning experience, and few defensemen have the opportunity to learn their trade any better than facing the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at practice.

"It's no fun," Orpik explained, looking across the locker room at his ultra-skilled teammates. "I think it makes all of our defensemen a lot better, playing against those guys."

"A lot of teams are looking for that element in their defensive corps," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Orpik's grit and mobility. "A guy who can skate well and punish the other team's skilled players in the offensive zone … and he does that repeatedly.

"He's a physical presence. Guys know when he's out there. As his game has improved last year and this year with his positioning, he's being more patient and letting the game come to him. He's still getting those hits. He combines that physical element with a guy who can skate with the best the opposition has to offer. That's a huge asset."

In this Stanley Cup Final series against the Red Wings, Orpik has another difficult one-on-one matchup against the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa and Company.

This aggressive defenseman grew up admiring the hits dished out regularly by former New Jersey blueliner Scott Stevens. But there was a lot more growing and maturing for Orpik when he was playing at Nichols High School in Buffalo.

"I remember my coach there, Jack Foley, was always pushing my comfort level, prodding me to work harder and one day he told me, 'Don't be comfortable with being average -- average is as close to the bottom as it is to the top.'

"Wow! Those words. They seemed so powerful. They just stayed with me."

Orpik went from Nichols to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., for a better brand of hockey. From there, he went on to Boston College, where he rarely lost or struggled. He helped that team to the NCAA Frozen Four three straight years -- 1999, 2000 and 2001, losing to North Dakota, 4-2, in the finals in 2000, before coming back to beat the same Fighting Sioux the next year, 3-2, in overtime.

After his sophomore season at BC, Brooks was selected by Pittsburgh in the first round, with the 18th pick in the 2000 Entry Draft. It was at that point he had the pleasure of meeting Herb Brooks.

"He was working in the Penguins' scouting staff and was the first one to come up to me when they brought me to the team's table after I was drafted. He told me he knew my whole story, the name, everything, which made me feel great," Orpik said, adding he also had a chance to pick the legendary coach's brains whenever he visited the Penguins farm club at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League.

From those days at prep school to Boston College to this second straight trip to the Final, it's been a long journey for Orpik.

"We've all been in situations where it's lose and you're out," he said. "You use everything from your past to drive you. Every win. Every loss."

And now, every word of encouragement drives you. And the words Brooks Orpik needs to finish off his real-life crossword puzzle? The final two words might be "golden" and "moment."

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