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Michalek Strong At Both Ends Of The Ice

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Takeaway:

> Zbynek Michalek has picked up an assist, recorded seven shots, blocked 13 shots and posted a plus-2 rating in two exhibition games.
> Michalek has started the preseason strong as a shot-blocking and penalty killing specialist.
> Although he is regarded as a defensive defender, Michalek has been asked to contribute offensively by the Penguins’ coaching staff.
> Michalek’s hard shot and ability to get open at the point should help his offensive game.

Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek might not be a household name in Pittsburgh just yet, but that figures to change quickly based upon his first two performances in a Penguins sweater.

Michalek, who stands 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, was inked to a five-year deal by general manager Ray Shero barely an hour into the free agent frenzy on July 1, 2010.

When fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has spent several training camp practices lining up next to Michalek, heard about the move, he knew the Penguins were getting a good player. However, until practicing alongside Michalek during camp, Orpik didn’t appreciate how solid Michalek is.

“To be honest, before we signed him I didn’t know him that much, although I knew he was pretty good,” Orpik said. “He played in Phoenix and we only play them once a year so you didn’t really appreciate how good he is.”

Through two exhibition games, Michalek has done plenty to show why they should appreciate what he is going to add to the lineup. 

Against the Detroit Red Wings last Wednesday, Michalek was a defensive beast, registering two hits, blocking six shots and posting a plus-2 rating in 22:48 minutes. Michalek was also a factor on the penalty kill – his specialty – helping to hold the Wings to an 0-for-4 showing while logging a team-best 4:45 shorthanded minutes.

He followed that performance up on Saturday night against Columbus by blocking five more shots and playing all-around tough defense in 21:34 minutes. The Blue Jackets, who brought their top offensive guns – Rich Nash, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek – to Pittsburgh, finished 0-for-7 on the man-advantage, thanks in no small part to the 5:47 shorthanded minutes Michalek saw.

“The penalty kill is a big part of my game,” Michalek said. “It’s something that I take a lot of pride in. Special teams are such a huge factor in today’s game. They really win and lose games for you, so we want to be very strong in both areas.”

Zbynek Michalek's penalty killing skills have allowed the Penguins to kill off all 11 opposition power plays during his two games. Credit - Getty Images

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been a standout in his own right during the preseason. He credits much of his success to the way the defensemen have played in front of him, particularly Michalek, who has impressed Fleury with his willingness and desire to step in front of pucks so Fleury doesn’t have to.

“He is definitely not scared to get down and block shots,” Fleury said. “He’ll go down, but it’s not for no reason. He is very smart not to take himself out of the play. He’s just been a great guy to have in front of me thus far.”

As well as Michalek plays in a shutdown role, it would be a discredit to his underrated and perhaps a bit untapped offensive skill set to label him strictly a defensive defenseman.

While his offensive totals last season in Phoenix – three goals and 17 total points – don’t jump out at you, nor do they tell Michalek’s whole story.

Last season under head coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes employed a defensive-minded system behind a strong defense featuring Michalek, Keith Yandle and Ed Jovanovski, with superstar goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov behind them manning the crease.

With such a strong defensive corps, Phoenix didn’t have to ask Michalek to chip in offensively, but that will change a bit here in Pittsburgh.

“That’s something that I have talked about with the coaches,” Michalek said. “I believe that I can chip in offensively more than I did in past years. We have such a great group of guys that if you can get open, they will pass the puck to you.”

(Zbynek) is definitely not scared to get down and block shots. He’ll go down, but it’s not for no reason. He is very smart not to take himself out of the play. He’s just been a great guy to have in front of me thus far. - Marc-Andre Fleury
If Michalek’s first two exhibition contests and the team’s training camp scrimmages are any indication, he is going to have plenty of chances to chip in offensively in 2010-11.

Michalek has shown a knack for being able to find those open areas at the blue line, which has allowed the Penguins’ skilled forwards to find him for quality scoring chances. When Michalek does get his scoring chances, he is a threat to bury them thanks to an overpowering slap shot.

“Throughout the years I have had a lot of people tell me that I have a hard shot,” said Michalek, whose career high for goals is nine set back in 2005-06 with Phoenix. “This year I am going to try to take something off a bit and focus on hitting the net because sometimes even the soft shots can create rebounds or get through screens in the front of the net. I think my main focus should just be to get the puck on net.”

If Michalek is successful getting more shots through to the net, Orpik predicts he will easily surpass his total from last season. According to Orpik, with guys like Michalek and Paul Martin, another offseason addition on defense, just the transition to a more offensive-minded system in Pittsburgh will help their offensive statistics as well.

“He’s known as a defensive guy that blocks a lot of shots, but just from practice, I’m amazed that he only had three goals with the shot that he has,” Orpik said. “I think we saw that a couple of times on Saturday.

“A lot of times guys see their numbers stay down a bit from what they can produce because of the system they play in. Sometimes if you play with a more offensive partner you get pushed into more of a defensive role.”

While Michalek figures to make good on Orpik’s prediction and become more of an offensive factor, he insists it won’t come at the expense of his bread and butter.

“I’m going to try to play offensively, but at the same time I still have to play my game and be sound defensively,” Michalek said. “That is my main job.”

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