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Pittsburgh's Hitman

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
When Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik first broke into the National Hockey League, he wanted to make his mark. Orpik, who is a hard-nosed, physical player, tried to make his presence felt on every shift with a hit. 


“When I was younger, that’s all I wanted to do; there might as well not be a puck on the ice,” Orpik said. “It’s funny now because I’ll watch other young guys come into the league and you kind of laugh to see them experiencing the same thing. You see younger guys that are guilty of it and I was really guilty of it when I was younger, when you go looking for (hits), that’s when you really get exposed in this league because guys are so skilled, they take advantage of you.”

As Orpik has matured, he’s learned to channel his physical play. Orpik doesn’t run around trying to punish every player. Now he is disciplined in his positioning and picks his spots to deliver a blow.

“My approach to the game, you can’t go into a game saying I’m going to run three guys over or have this many hits or just run around,” Orpik said. “You have to approach the game and let the game play out. That’s the kind of player that I am so I’m always going to play that way.  It’s tough. When a guy sees you coming, guys are so skilled now that if they get you going forward at them, they’ll make you look silly. Patience is the biggest thing. You can’t go looking for it. You just kind of have to let it come to you.”

Orpik’s approach has helped him become one of the best hitters in the NHL. He has 226 hits as of Monday afternoon, the most by any player in the Eastern Conference and second highest total in the NHL (Cal Clutterbuck, Min, 232).

“The actual stat is really misconstrued,” Orpik said. “It’s more of an opinion. It’s different at different rinks. I was joking with someone the other day that if you played for the Rangers you’d have 1,000 hits a season. You go to other places, like New Jersey, and you have to take someone’s head off to get one.”

     
 

 
     
Orpik has put together a few highlight reel-type hits during his career, including three monstrous hits on one shift against the Detroit Red Wings in last year’s Stanley Cup Final.

“You’re going to have guys that you hate playing against and you look at a guy like Orpik on our team,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I’m sure guys hate playing against him. He gives a hack and whack here and there, the odd cross check. Those are challenges you look forward to in the games. That’s what makes hockey around the league.”

Orpik’s play has not gone unnoticed. TSN rated Orpik as the No. 1 player in the NHL to “lay it on the line.” Players were rated on their intangible elements, such as hits, blocked shots, giveaways and takeaways. Orpik easily topped the list with a 4.73 rating, .25 points higher than second place Greg Zanon, 4.48 (see article).

Orpik didn’t become the “grittiest” player in the league overnight. He’s played that way his whole life.

“Growing up, the guys I always liked watching were physical guys,” Orpik said. “You try to emulate the way they play. Even when I was younger I was pretty physical.”

Orpik, who finished third in the East in hits last year with 239, has honed his craft over the years but the fundamentals are still the same. To be a great hitter at any level you need to have leverage, which comes from skating and timing.

“The biggest thing is leverage really,” Orpik said. “The guys that tend to be good hitters are guys that are good skaters and have good timing. In terms of technique, it all comes from your legs. That’s what I’m talking about with leverage, the lower you can get on guys then you can use your legs to drive up through them. It’s funny because you’ll see big, strong guys that have no balance. They’re all top heavy and they're big and strong up top. They just try to hit with their upper body and they have no balance. So you see them hitting guys and falling down, spinning off. It’s funny. As long as you’re a good skater and you have good timing, you can always be a good hitter.”

According to Orpik, who was “undersized” as a young hockey player, you don’t have to be a physically imposing figure to be a good hitter.

The biggest thing is leverage really. The guys that tend to be good hitters are guys that are good skaters and have good timing ... The lower you can get on guys then you can use your legs to drive up through them ... As long as you’re a good skater and you have good timing, you can always be a good hitter. - Brooks Orpik
“Until my freshman year of high school I was five feet tall,” Orpik said. “Then I grew 10 inches that year and didn’t put much weight on. I was a stick figure really. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I started filling out and getting a little bit bigger. My junior year of high school was when I really started physically developing and maturing. It was a little bit easier from there.

“Even when I was younger, the hitters weren’t necessarily huge guys. It was guys that could always skate. If you’re not a good skater then you’re always behind the pucks. You can never catch up to the play, especially with the way the league is now. I think everyone thinks it’s just big and strong guys that are physical. That can certainly help but if you can’t skate, that’s the biggest thing with hitting. (Los Angeles’) Dustin Brown isn’t all that big. He’s probably the perfect guy to watch. He has good form. He gets leverage on guys and he gets really low but it all starts because he’s a good skater.”

Still, there is no underestimating how much of an impact Orpik’s big hit can have on a game.

“There are different things behind different hits,” Orpik said. “Sometimes it can be similar to fighting. If we are down by a couple of goals and you’re looking to spark your team, maybe you do go looking for it more than other times. Hitting is basically separating guys from pucks and creating turnovers that way. There’s other times where you’re trying to gain momentum for your team, create energy for your team. There’s a lot of different benefits from it. It all serves a purpose at the end of the day really.”
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