Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik
is the perfect poster child to dispel the notion that Team USA's defense may be its undoing in the Olympic tournament.
Team USA begins its three-game Group A campaign Tuesday afternoon (3 p.m. ET) against Switzerland at Canada Hockey Place and that will be the first real test of a young -- and mostly untested -- defense that will have to come together quickly if the Americans hope to find a way to medal.
The American blue line was hurt by the loss of puck-moving defenseman Paul Martin
of New Jersey and body-banger Mike Komisarek of Toronto. Those roster deletions have elevated Orpik to the No. 2 position on the American blue line behind veteran Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings.
So, can the 29-year-old defenseman handle that assignment? Perhaps the Red Wings can answer that question. While Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
enjoyed the lion's share of the credit when Pittsburgh knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion last June, Orpik was a linchpin of the team's defensive effort, logging serious minutes against both of Detroit's top two lines, which, by the way, featured Olympians like Pavel Datsyuk (Russia), Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen (both of Sweden and Marian Hossa (Slovakia).
"He is one of the most underrated 'D' men in the League, I think," said Team USA defenseman Tim Gleason. "He's underrated because he doesn't get 30-plus points. But, you win championships with guys like that. He is the heart and soul of that team, probably.
"I know you hear about Crosby and Malkin, but that's why that team does so well, because they have that core group of guys and (Orpik) is part of that core. He's a great defensive player and he is very smart.
Gleason knows from what he speaks. The Carolina defenseman watched his team fail to generate much offense in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final. He watched as Orpik played brilliantly against Carolina's top lines -- featuring Olympians Eric Staal (Canada) and Tuomo Ruutu (Finland). And, he painfully watched the video as the Carolina coaching staff dissected the losses. Each postmortem, Gleason's eyes were drawn to Orpik.
"He's simple," Gleason said, meaning it as the highest form of compliment. "He's strong on the puck and he plays consistent, which is the key to a lot of successful players. He's doing himself by playing consistent. You might not say wow or be wowed by him, but if you were to watch the tape, you would be. He does all the simple things right."
In last year's postseason, which ended with him hoisting the Stanley Cup, Orpik played more than 20 minutes a game, including significant time in the penalty-killing rotation during a grueling 24-game run.
This season, Orpik is again playing more than 20 minutes a game and his penalty-killing role is even more pronounced. Yet, he never seems to get much notice.
But, Orpik isn't complaining.
"That's just human nature when you have Crosby, Malkin and (Jordan) Staal on your team," Orpik said Monday. "I think the guys in Pittsburgh actually like it. You don't have too much media stuff and you kind of fly right under the radar with all those guys."
He won't fly under the radar in Vancouver, though.
Paired with young buck Jack Johnson of the Los Angeles Kings, Orpik will be asked to eat some serious minutes and serve as a safety net for his more offensive-minded partner.
Johnson is excited about the partnership after watching Orpik play the Red Wings in each of the past two Finals.
"I think he and I will make a great pair," Johnson said Sunday. "I think he is a phenomenal player -- hard to play against. I think as a pair, we make a difficult pair to play against."
But, there are more than a few people looking in on this tournament that question how effective the American defenseman will be, citing the lack of a dominant player and the unit's youth. Orpik, at 29, is the second-oldest of the seven defensemen on the USA roster.
"It's not the big names you see on Canada's blue line," Orpik said. "If you compare anyone's defense to the Canadians, it's going to be a little subpar. But, that is something that the guys in our locker room don't put much value in."
Orpik can afford to be confident. He watched a young Penguins team with a questionable blue line accomplish the ultimate in the National Hockey League. So, why not Team USA, he says.
And, come Tuesday, he will let his play back up his words.