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Engelland, Vitale Will Make Physical Impact in Playoff Debuts

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Deryk Engelland is one of the most soft-spoken players in the Penguins locker room, at least to we in the media.

He quietly goes about his business each day with the tireless work ethic, dedication and persistence that’s gotten him to this point – poised to make his NHL playoff debut at the age of 30.

Though it may be somewhat out of character for the usually unflappable defenseman, he’s not going to lie – he’s excited about the opportunity to play in Pittsburgh’s upcoming first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.

“I’m pretty worked up about it,” he admitted with a smile.

Joe Vitale hasn’t been around as long as Engelland has. This marks the 26-year-old forward’s first season with the Penguins after spending two seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (and the previous four at Northeastern University).

But of course, he’s equally pumped to make his postseason debut. How could he not be?

“It’s definitely a different feeling waking up the last couple days heading into the postseason,” he grinned. “It’s hard to explain, but definitely a lot more excitement.”

Not only will both players be making their playoff debuts, but they’re sure to make a big impact on what’s sure to be an aggressive, physical series against Philadelphia.

Vitale showed just how aggressive of a presence he can be during Pittsburgh’s regular season meetings with their cross-state rival, capped off by a thundering open-ice check on veteran center Danny Briere – one of five hits he threw that game.

It’s actually a role Vitale grew into over the course of the regular season. While he’s always brought speed and energy to the ice, certain aspects of his game like his faceoff ability (he won 55.7 percent of his draws) and defensive acumen tended to . It’s only over the last few months that he’s really adopted an edge to the way he plays the game, and that will be invaluable starting Wednesday.

“I would say his last 20 games, really, he has carved an identity and a niche in his game about what he brings for our team,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “You see his speed immediately, but the grit and the physicality with which he’s played the game, the abrasiveness, has been a big factor I would say in the last 25 games.

“And he’s been really good in the faceoff circle, our best player on the right side, and also part of the penalty kill as well. He’s played a pretty big role for us in being a physical, aggressive guy. He’s going to be that for us in the playoffs.”

Vitale hopes to bring all of that to the ice.

“I think just being that physical presence out there on the fourth line,” he said. “Being strong on faceoffs and responsible in all three zones. Just kind of picking up the team, however that comes, whether it’s a big hit or going to the net hard. Just kind of being gritty in those kinds of areas.”

Engelland is also planning on embracing the physicality of this series. While he has evolved into a steady, responsible defender that’s proven capable of handling every matchup situation, Engelland – who ranks third on the team with 174 hits – has established a reputation around the league as being one of its toughest – and that, too, will be key in a grind of a series.

“I think Deryk has really showed how he can execute and defend well against anybody in the league, but there’s also a grit factor and a physical factor to his game that’s evident,” Bylsma said. “Not only in letting other teams know they’re going to have him to worry about if things go in a different direction, but also just how physical he is. He may be our best, biggest hitting defenseman. Brooks Orpik hits the most, but Deryk’s probably a little more effective with a big body check against a lot of times, the other team’s skilled players.”

“Physicality is a big part of my game,” Engelland said with another smile, “And I’m looking forward to it.”

So are the fans.
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