PITTSBURGH - A year ago Georges Laraque would have never been on the ice with two minutes left in a big playoff game. In fact, he probably would have been in the press box.
That's the difference between the 2007 version of Georges Laraque and the slimmer, quicker and more motivated 2008 model.
"In 2007 I was a whale at 270 pounds," said the Pittsburgh Penguins tough guy. "And now I'm in better shape at 255. It's much easier to skate at 255 than at 270."
It's a testimony to his off-season dedication that the former Edmonton Oilers fan favourite has become a regular in the Penguins lineup, helping set up the winning goal in Game 2 of the NHL's Eastern Conference final on Sunday night and taking a shift late in the game on his fourth line to help preserve the lead.
"I don't remember the last time that's happened with a fourth line and I'm glad to see the coach have confidence in us," Laraque said Monday after practice at Mellon Arena. "We just have to keep playing the same way and he'll give us the ice time if contribute like that."
The performance of Laraque's line along with Gary Roberts and Maxime Talbot is the kind that are needed for teams to have a chance to win championships. Star players alone can't deliver a Stanley Cup.
"You can't win without it," said Penguins GM Ray Shero. "We said that before the playoffs. We knew about Hossa and Crosby and Malkin and Gonchar and those guys but in order to start winning in the playoffs, we knew we needed contributions from the role guys."
It's just the latest example of a Penguins team rolling on all cylinders. They're 10-1 in these playoffs and lead the Philadelphia Flyers 2-0 in the conference final, and a win Tuesday night at Wachovia Centre (7:30 p.m ET) would leave them only a win away from the Stanley Cup final.
Laraque is trying not to think about that. But deep down he is relishing a chance at undoing the most painful hockey memory in his NHL career. The 31-year-old drops his ever-present smile when recalling a seven-game loss to Carolina with the Oilers in June 2006.
"It was the worst feeling, losing Game 7," said Laraque. "When you're a kid you always dream of scoring the winning goal in Game 7, not losing it. To be honest, most guys would rather not make the playoffs than lose in Game 7. It was the most heartbreaking loss in our lives."
He wasn't very happy last April either when he dressed for only two of five playoff games in Pittsburgh's first-round exit to Ottawa. But the message was clear from Shero and head coach Michel Therrien - get in shape.
"I like him a lot better this year than last year, quite honestly," said Shero. "And we had a conversation after last season with Michel Therrien, myself and Georges. Coming from Phoenix, he wasn't in the shape he needed to be in or that we wanted him to be in. He wanted to play a certain role but Mike made it clear to him that 'Unless you improve as a player, you'll have a hard time getting that ice time here.' So to Georges' credit, he really took last summer seriously, trained hard. We told him what we wanted him to come back at and he did.
"From Day 1, 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."
Laraque arrived at the trade deadline last season from the Coyotes - overweight.
"I came here and I could barely move," said Laraque.
Therrien was surprised.
"Well, if there's someone who knows Georges really well, it's me, because I coached Georges in junior," said Therrien, who coached him in Granby 12 years ago. "I know what he's capable of. We won a Memorial Cup together. He was an impact player on our team. ... But the Georges Laraque that I saw last year was not the Georges Laraque that I knew.
"I told him at the end of the year that he needs to be in much better shape. He could be an impact player, and he took care of himself over the summer... He's capable of playing, he's capable of a forecheck. And guys like that are always going to bring some respect from your own team and I'm more than satisfied with the way Georges handled himself this year compared to last year."
Laraque has one goal and two assists in 11 playoff games this spring. And don't be fooled, he remembers why he's here. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin need protection.
"Last night I went after (Flyers defenceman Derian) Hatcher when it was 4-2 near the end," said Laraque. "I said, 'Listen, you wanted to be tough against Malkin? Show me how tough you are. You're 6-5, 230? I said let's go.' I wanted to fight him because I can't let a big guy like that go after our star players and not do anything about it. At least I let my message through to him."
Talbot says all his teammates appreciate having one of the NHL's most feared players on their side.
"Georges is the toughest guy in the league," said Talbot. "But he's just not a tough guy, Georges can play. I've been playing with him most of the year and he's great. It's fun having him on the line. ... But when you have the toughest guy in the league on your team, it's kind of scary. He gives us all a little more space out there, even a guy like me who plays on his line. It's great to have him on our side."