Laraque's role no small one in Penguins' impressive playoff run

PHILADELPHIA -- This is Georges Laraque's self-assessment of where he was a year ago when he came to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"I was a whale," the Penguins' tough guy said Monday. "I was a whale at 270 [pounds], and now I'm in better shape at 255. It's much easier to skate at 255 than 270."

Now, this isn't a plug for the Laraque diet plan, although the personable big man likely could make it a fine second career if he chose to do so. The fact that Laraque heeded the demands of his general manager and coach, slimmed down and now is playing a role in the Penguins' impressive playoff run helps tell the greater story of all the tiny moving parts that make up a Stanley Cup team.

Laraque's acquisition from the Phoenix Coyotes at last season's trade deadline was greeted with much hype and celebration. Finally, a big man to look after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But when the playoffs began, Laraque was a giant liability. He couldn't skate, he couldn't get to opponents to hit them and he couldn't log significant ice time to be of help.

Penguins coach Michel Therrien knew Laraque from his days as the coach of the now-defunct Granby Predateurs of the QMJHL.

"Well, if there's someone who knows Georges really well, it's me. … I know what he's capable of," Therrien said. "We won a Memorial Cup together. He was an impact player on our team. That was a guy that we were looking to bring to our club. I thought we really did a great job to bring Georges in, but the Georges Laraque that I saw last year was not the Georges Laraque that I knew."

When the Penguins were ousted in five games by the skilled Ottawa Senators, Therrien and GM Ray Shero met with Laraque for a little tough love of their own and told the acknowledged heavyweight champion of the NHL to slim down and come ready to play or there would be no role for him on this team.

Laraque did just that.

"I knew what I had to do," he said. "So I came in at 255 and really in good shape, so I was fine."

It's a dilemma for teams that want a deterrent against opponents who might try to take liberties with stars like Crosby and Malkin. But in the cap world, it's hard to commit salary and a roster spot if the player can't do more than pummel the other team's tough guy, especially in the playoffs, when fights are rare.

Yet, if you can find a player who is imposing and can play a little hockey, well, that's when you have an edge. And, in the playoffs, getting enough of an edge can win you a Stanley Cup.

Take Sunday's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. With the game tied at 2 in the third period, Laraque and fourth-line mates Max Talbot and Gary Roberts went over the boards as they have been doing on a regular basis throughout the playoffs. Laraque made a nice play to keep the puck in the Flyers' zone and get it deep behind the net. Roberts got ahead of the Flyers' defenders and made a terrific no-look pass to Talbot, who snapped home the winner.

It was Talbot's second goal of the playoffs (he also has an assist). Roberts added his third postseason point, and Laraque collected his third point of the playoffs on the secondary assist.

They weren't done.

With time winding down, they were on the ice again, playing a strong defensive shift to help preserve the lead they provided.

"You know, I think we try to have a team affair. Guys have their roles," Therrien said. "But I think it's important at times to show trust. And even the players on the bench, they were pleased to see those guys go on the ice, especially after they scored the winning goal. They deserved to be there."

"It makes us feel good, but, at the same time, it's rewarding, because Michel, he plays the guys that play hard and contribute and stuff and that are out there and skating and stuff," Laraque said.

If the coaches are afraid to have those players on the ice because those players are a defensive liability, "then they're not going to put us out there."

"But when you see that we are [on the ice], like after the big goal we had … that's big. I don't recall the last time a fourth line played with two minutes in a game," Laraque added with a grin. "When he does that, the No. 1 and No. 2 lines are rested, and when they go out on the ice, they have so much more energy. That's why, when you can play four lines and the other team plays three lines, it's a big asset for our team."

This series has provided a real test for Laraque. He already has challenged Derian Hatcher, who has been trying to manhandle Malkin, but the Flyers defenseman declined.

"If you're 6-foot-5, 230, back it up," Laraque said. "Look at [Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno] Chara. Chara's big, he plays physical, but backs it up if he has to. [Anaheim Ducks defenseman Chris] Pronger. But Hatcher never does. He's a bully."

Still, Laraque understands the line between being a presence and being the cause of the unthinkable is perilously thin. He recalls the penalty New York Rangers enforcer Ryan Hollweg took in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Pittsburgh, a penalty that allowed the Penguins to score a crucial power-play goal, giving them a 3-0 series lead and essentially costing the Rangers any chance of beating them.

"I know every penalty that I take could cost a game like that," said Laraque, who has but two minor penalties in the postseason.

As the Penguins went through an optional skate Monday before jetting to Philadelphia for Game 3, Laraque was on the ice, his big voice carrying around Mellon Arena, cajoling and castigating his younger teammates.

"I like him a lot better this year than last year, quite honestly," Shero said Monday. "We told him what we wanted him to come back at, and he did. From day one, he was serious about playing and having a role on this team. I think he's had a great year for us and he's fit in very well, protecting his teammates. On the ice, he's been a good contributor at both ends. It's a nice story for him."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.