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Ehrhoff finding his way with Penguins

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, November 26, 2014 12:01 a.m.
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff plays against the Islanders on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
ptrpens04112614
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins defenseman Christian Ehrhoff plays against the Islanders Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 at Consol Enrgy Center.

The real Christian Ehrhoff showed up during the past week.

A six-week display of solid but unspectacular hockey left the Penguins pleased enough with their key free agent acquisition, but his performance in the past few games has the coaching staff delighted.

This is the defenseman that general manager Jim Rutherford aggressively pursued July 1.

“A lot better,” coach Mike Johnston said of Ehrhoff’s recent play. “I really like where his game is at now. Not that it wasn’t where it should have been earlier in the year, but he was playing more of a contain game.”

The Penguins didn’t acquire Ehrhoff to play “a contain game.”

Rather, they want him to make plays offensively and use his skating ability to defend efficiently in a style similar to defenseman Paul Martin.

“He’s been much more assertive out there,” Johnston said.

Ehrhoff has six points and hasn’t scored a goal with the Penguins, but his plus-13 mark leads all NHL defensemen. Long a standout in advanced stats metrics, Ehrhoff again has thrived there this season.

His game, however, was oddly conservative in October.

There is a reason.

Playing for arguably the NHL’s least talented team in Buffalo during the past two seasons, Ehrhoff admitted he had to remember how to play with a skilled team. He was a standout with the high-flying Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks before signing with the Sabres.

Now, he is with an immensely talented team.

“It definitely was an adjustment for me,” Ehrhoff said. “The whole mindset here is different. It took me a while to get that mindset back. But I feel like it’s going better and better now.”

The Penguins loved Ehrhoff’s game against Boston on Monday. He was more aggressive in the offensive zone, making proper reads and adding to the offensive attack. In a second-period shift, he twice triggered an offensive rush with aggressive play.

He and defenseman Olli Maatta played their fourth game together and continue to grow more comfortable, even though they were on the ice for one Bruins goal.

“It’s just his whole game,” Johnston said about Ehrhoff. “When he jumps into the play, he’s being assertive now. And he’s assertive when closing on guys. He’s been a real stabilizing influence. I’ve liked his game in the past few weeks.”

His teammates also have noticed a different Ehrhoff.

“His game has always been about being aggressive,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “He’s always used to being up in the play, challenging. I’ve seen that from watching him in the past. He’s starting to look a lot more comfortable doing that now.”

Ehrhoff is now comfortable in Johnston’s system and is particularly comfortable playing on the right side, something he wasn’t doing earlier this season when paired with Kris Letang or Martin.

“I feel like I’m playing better and better,” Ehrhoff said.

Ehrhoff is crucial for the Penguins. In Letang, Martin and Maatta, the organization possesses three players it believes are highly talented, top-four defensemen. If Ehrhoff’s play continues to trend upward, he gives them the fourth member of that group.

“He’s playing way better,” defenseman Simon Despres said. “He’ll keep getting better.”

The Penguins are counting on it.

“You can see that he feels better and better,” said center Marcel Goc, a fellow German. “He’s just a great player.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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