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Strait to the Top

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In the past decade, the Pittsburgh Penguins have gone on the defense. The organization has developed a steady stream of NHL blueliners, such as Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Ryan Whitney and Ben Lovejoy.

Next up- Brian Strait.

The Penguins’ 2006 third-round draft choice gave Pittsburgh fans their first glimpse of the steady two-way defenseman last season as he got his first taste of NHL action with a three-game stint.

“It was good last year to get those three games under my belt. It relaxed me more once I came back to training camp in the fall. I was a little more comfortable and able to get right into my game. I had some good reviews in training camp and that helped me earn the call up early on.”

Strait was one of the Penguins’ last cuts in training camp. He continued his hot play at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with a goal and four points in his first five AHL games of the year. His strong showing earned him another NHL recall in October. However, he suffered a hyperextended left elbow at Minnesota in his first game. The freak injury sidelined him for 25 games and, once healthy, he was reassigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in mid-December.

“It happened to me before where I hyperextended it a little and it was just sore – never to this extent. Obviously, I knew it was a little different situation, but I didn’t expect the news I got: a two- or three-month (recovery) process. I was fortunate enough that I didn’t have to get surgery. Everything is going well with it now where I don’t have problems,” Strait said. “Things are going well and I am slowly getting back in the groove. Being out two months, you’re trying to get the conditioning back and everything back you were doing so well before. It’s all coming back, though. I haven’t had any issues with the injury.”

The elbow injury cost Strait considerable playing time at the NHL level as various ailments had already depleted the Penguins’ defensive corps. Nevertheless, Strait knows he’ll get another chance to make his mark in a deep Pittsburgh defensive corps.

“It was a point of the season where there were injuries and opportunities to play a lot of games,” he said. “But, I just have to put it behind me. It’s all what happens from here on out. My focus is all about working back to getting to the NHL and where I was prior to the injury.”

The 6-1, 200-pounder already has made a favorable impression within the organization. After all, through his first168 AHL game since turning pro in 2009, Strait has five goals, 25 assists and a plus-49 plus/minus rating.

“The style of his game may not get the attention of the fans and media all the time, but he is a very reliable player. He plays our system perfectly. He is very coachable and you rarely see him make the same mistake twice,” said Jason Botterill, the Penguins’ assistant general manager. “He knows the small nuances of our system and communicates well with his partners. The way he plays in the AHL is the same way he plays at the NHL level. Unfortunately, he got injured and it was a setback for him. But, he’s shown his dedication and work ethic and he came back extremely strong and he’s getting his game back in shape. We know he’s guy we can call up and he will help our team win NHL games.”

Strait has developed into one of the AHL’s top shutdown defensemen. He pairs with Robert Bortuzzo to form Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s main defensive duo.

“My game revolves around my defensive play. I think it’s more of my ability to keep top offensive players off the scoreboard and keep the puck out of our end as much as possible,” Strait said. “The best defense is a good offense. So, the way we retrieve pucks and get them out of our zone and how we play in our own end – those are the things that I think are most important to my team. We try to end plays earlier and end rushes earlier. We’re good at retrieving pucks. That helps you to not spend any more time in your zone and getting pucks up to the forwards allows us to play more in the offensive zone.”

photo courtesy WBS Baby PensStrait, who captained Team USA to a gold medal in the 2006 Under-18 World Championships and helped Boston University to the 2009 NCAA title, has had little trouble adjusting to pro hockey.

“I think there was an adjustment period when I first got there, but I am somewhat of an adaptable player,” he said. “When I got here, they taught me along the way what I needed to do. I thought of myself as one-dimensional defensive defenseman. I have adapted well enough to play both sides of the puck. I can create space for my teammates to get in the play. When it comes down to it, it’s all about getting more guys into the rush and getting more guys into the play and I like to use my skating ability to do that.”

He hopes to continue his winning tradition at the pro level, too.

“Anytime you have chance for a championship, that is something special. That’s what my whole career has been about,” he said. “I have been on a lot of winning teams. The great thing about this organization is they care so much about winning. That’s my goal, too.”

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