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Orpik has been hitting it off with opponents

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (left), who mixed it up with Andreas Lilja in Game 2, has taken an antagonistic attitude toward the Red Wings throughout the Stanley Cup finals. Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (left), who mixed it up with Andreas Lilja in Game 2, has taken an antagonistic attitude toward the Red Wings throughout the Stanley Cup finals. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 31, 2008

PITTSBURGH - The hits kept coming, one after another, each of the Red Wings funneling themselves toward Brooks Orpik. What's a hitter to do in such circumstances? With an assortment of hips, arms, shoulders, and requisite grit, the Penguins defenseman leveled every one of them. Four hits. One shift. All in a night's work that led to a game-high seven hits.

"Kind of weird," said Orpik, the former Boston College blue liner. "But I looked at the tape, and every one of the hits came in the same area of the ice, behind our blue line, all in about a 6- or 8-foot area. It wasn't like I was running up into the neutral zone to make the hit or anything. It was kind of like they were turning into me, really."

So it went Wednesday night for the Red Wings, their lead cut in half (2-1), in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals. The squads will face off tonight at Mellon Arena, with Orpik & Co. intent on returning with the physical pluck that helped them forge their 3-2 victory in Game 3.

At 6 feet 2 inches and some 220 pounds, Orpik features hitting as his strong suit, just as it was in his three seasons at The Heights. In 319 NHL games, including 22 playoff games, he has scored but four goals and totaled 38 points. This is Orpik we're talking, not Orr. For thump, though, the former Thayer Academy standout has turned into a perennial powerhouse, and this season he recorded 239 hits, sixth in the NHL (16 more than Boston's Zdeno Chara).

"The opportunity was there, and when it's there, you really want to make them pay," said Orpik, referring to the shift late in the third period Wednesday when he stapled Dan Cleary, Kris Draper, and Dallas Drake (twice). "That's kind of my role on the team. There's a lot of other guys who do the same thing. It's something that we can just energize the team and crowd with."

It's also an impressive bit of résumé building that Orpik, 27, will carry into the open market July 1. An unrestricted free agent, on the books this season for a modest $1.075 million, he is likely to boost his pay to the $3 million-$4 million stratosphere, be it in Pittsburgh or elsewhere in the Original 30. A club desperate (see: Rangers) for a young, hard-hitting defenseman conceivably could offer a pay boost to $5 million a year or more.

"Not thinking about that all too much," said Orpik, who a couple of years ago bought a home in Brookline, Mass., where his brother Andrew, a BC forward, lives. "Right now, my focus is here, trying to win a Stanley Cup, and the rest will work itself out."

General manager Ray Shero, who took over the front office less than two years ago, has a number of high-profile free agents with whom he must reckon in very short order. The list includes wingers Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa (believed to be a Bruins target) and tough guys Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque, among others. Orpik is the top Penguin free agent on the blue line, and Shero, with upward of $27 million committed in payroll for next season, should be able to fit Orpik comfortably under a cap that is expected to reach nearly $55 million.

For reasons he doesn't fully understand, Orpik at times this season found himself out of work along the Pittsburgh blue line. Coach Michel Therrien took him out of the rotation for a brief stretch, and twice dressed him as a winger. Strange detail for a career bopper.

"Well, I took it as their not being happy with what I was doing," said Orpik. "They told me that it was because they needed help at forward, that we had some injuries up there, and for whatever reason, they couldn't call anyone up from the minors. So, yeah, I played forward - it definitely wasn't a highlight of the year."

Right now, the Red Wings only wish Orpik were mothballed somewhere out on the wing, or even better, the press box. Instead, he usually pairs with the club's top puck-moving defenseman, ex-Bruin Sergei Gonchar, which on most shifts also means the Red Wings have their top guns on the ice. Detroit's offense is built first around puck possession, and second around net presence, leaving its forwards up against the nasty hits of Orpik, as well as the likes of ex-Bruin Hal Gill.

"That's a great team," said Orpik, crediting the Wings for their ability to maintain position around the net. "We were trying to think the other day about teams that can do that, and there aren't many. Some clubs have a lot of presence, sure, but they don't get there with the skill of guys like [Tomas] Holmstrom or [Johan] Franzen. That's the difference. Ryan Smyth in Colorado was like that. John LeClair was here for a while, and he could do it. [Mike] Knuble in Philly is similar, especially when he's on the power play - kind of an in-and-out thing with him. But Holmstrom . . . he's there every single time."

And for now, Orpik is right here, too, looking for that hit every single time. On July 1, his target will be the jackpot, and it could be his biggest hit of all.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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