PITTSBURGH — Brooks Orpik is less than two weeks away from going to his second straight Olympics for Team USA. He’s about 2½ months away from starting a run at his second Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At age 33, in his 10th full NHL season, the former Amherst resident learned plenty about dealing with a tight schedule four years ago when he won a silver medal in Vancouver. The goals this year are another run at gold and another run at the Cup.
“Everybody is in such good shape now I don’t think the physical grind is as much as people think,” Orpik said before Monday’s 3-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. “It’s more of the mental grind.
“It’s not like college or juniors and when you play teams at the bottom of the standings, you can get by at 80 percent. You see young guys struggling with that sometimes. We know we have to be sharp every night.”
Orpik has one goal and 11 points in 44 games this year and will likely play in Sochi with his Pittsburgh defense partner, Paul Martin. Orpik is fully recovered after missing eight games due to a concussion after the infamous attack he absorbed from Boston’s Shawn Thornton, who was suspended for 15 games.
The Penguins are atop the Eastern Conference but had a rare off night Saturday in Dallas as they suffered a 3-0 loss to Lindy Ruff’s new team. They also stumbled against lower-level opponents earlier this season with a loss in Edmonton and a 5-1 stinker at home against Florida that snapped their 13-game home winning streak.
“Our attention to detail is a big thing,” Orpik said. “This league is so good. Buffalo has the worst record in the league and they go into Columbus, who’s won eight in a row. There’s just no easy games. You can wind up losing two, three pretty quickly and that snowballs.
“We played Florida last week and Florida is nowhere near us in the standings and they came in here and pumped up, 5-1. Let your guard down a little bit that teams can really embarrass you.”
The tight schedule makes practice time tough to find this time of year.
“It’s more managing your energy,” Orpik siad. “That makes it really tough I think with a young team where you need to spend every day teaching guys things. We have a pretty veteran team here now as opposed to a few years ago. Now it’s more making sure you’re getting your rest and then having a sharper practice instead of walking on the ice without a purpose.”
Drew Stafford sat out the game with what Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan called a recurrence of the upper-body injury he missed four games earlier this month. Stafford initially suffered what’s believed to be a shoulder injury on a hit he delivered to Matt Cooke Jan. 2 in Minnesota and was injured again in the third period Saturday in Columbus.
Ville Leino, who also didn’t finish that game due to a hit from Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson, was able to return Monday. Linus Omark replaced Stafford in the lineup with John Scott and Alexander Sulzer.
Leino played on a line with Steve Ott and Cody Hodgson. Omark went on a line with Matt Ellis and Zenon Konopka.
It was first game in the Consol Energy Center for Buffalo interim coach Ted Nolan, as the Penguins still played across the street in old Mellon Arena when he was the coach of the New York Islanders.
Following the pregame skate, Nolan regaled a couple dozen reporters about his team playing in old NHL arenas and had them chuckling with his memories of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Nolan played 18 games with the Pens during the 1985-86 season, Lemieux’s second in the league. It was the last as a player for Nolan, who was also a teammate of Wayne Gretzky in junior hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
The Consol Center is widely referred to as “The House that Mario Built”. There’s a statue of Lemieux in front, a giant mural of him in the concourse, his No. 66 hangs from the rafters and there’s a Suite 66 at ice level with several pieces of memorabilia from his career.
“I remember a lot,” a smiling Nolan said when asked his memories of Lemieux. “I remember sitting down next to Mario and they had a poster night. I asked him to sign it and he asked for who and I said, ‘to me.’ I still got it at home. It’s ‘To Teddy.’ That’s it. When you have a chance to play with him and watch him in practice … I spread that story around quite a bit.”
Penguins standout Evgeni Malkin played his 500th career game. He entered the game with 611 career points in his first 499 contests, including 51 points in 41 games this season. … Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff tied his career high with three points Saturday at Columbus.