PITTSBURGH - It's a tradition unique to hockey.
After each round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, players line up and shake hands.
Most of the contact is perfunctory, but occasionally players will embrace and share a brief conversation.
No matter how spirited the play is in a series, no matter how many hard hits and angry words are exchanged, the players put aside their differences and part with a bit of sportsmanship.
But does that spirit carry over to the competition?
Hockey is a sport that balances grace with brutality. The players' ability to skate and make passes is incredible.
But hockey is the only sport where a fight doesn't earn an automatic ejection, and it's a game where players earn roster spots strictly from their ability to throw punches.
It takes courage to play the game. Defensemen throw themselves in front of shots that can reach 100 miles per hour.
Goalies make similar sacrifices to stop the puck.
Every player on the ice has a stick in his hands, and razor-sharp blades on his feet.
Facial cuts are a way of life, an occupational hazard.
A few years ago, Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Erik Christensen and Jarkko Ruutu were playing a one-on-one game after practice.
As Christensen tried to get the puck away from Ruutu, his stick slipped and cut Ruutu above the left eye. He had several stitches closing the cut that was just an inch or so above his eye.
"He was leaking pretty good," Christensen said with a laugh.
In other words, no big deal in the world of hockey players. Sometimes you wind up leaking pretty good when a stick or puck gets in your face.
Perhaps that explains why players don't seem to have a great concern about hits to an opponent's head.
"Finishing my check" is the usual reason offered when someone is leveled by a hit. That's what Matt Cooke said he was doing last March 7 when he blasted Boston's Marc Savard in open ice during a game at the Civic Arena.
"It's pretty obvious that was definitely a dirty hit," Boston coach Claude Julien said at the time. "That's the classic blindside hit to the head."
The NHL was concerned enough to rewrite the rules in an effort to protect the players.
That didn't prevent Sidney Crosby from being slammed by Washington's David Steckel during the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
Crosby didn't have the puck, and never saw Steckel coming, both of which would seemingly define it as an illegal hit under NHL policies.
But no penalty was assessed, and Steckel was also cleared after the NHL office reviewed the video.
"It was definitely dirty," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The Penguins didn't react to the play, but that was only because they didn't see what happened, forward Mike Rupp said. The players saw Crosby stretched out on the ice, but didn't know how he got there.
"If anyone had seen it, I promise there would have been a reaction," Rupp said.
So Crosby remains out. Saturday's home game against Carolina was the eighth he's missed since he was re-injured against Tampa Bay on Jan. 5.
Fan reaction to hard hits usually is ruled by rooting interest.
Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis laid a devastating hit on Philadelphia Flyers forward Eric Lindros during a March 7, 1998 game in Pittsburgh.
Lindros had just evaded Stu Barnes in the neutral zone, and had his head down, searching for the puck, when Kasparaitis skated over and lowered his shoulder into Lindros' face.
Lindros' helmet was knocked off his head, and he fell to the ice. The crowd roared. Lindros tried to get up, but his legs wobbled and he fell again. The roar got louder.
Lindros left the arena in an ambulance and was taken to a hospital for evaluation.
He ended up missing 18 games.
There's a youtube clip of Kasparaitis' check, and network commentator John Davidson, now an executive with the St. Louis Blues, says, "He's in trouble" as the dazed Lindros tries to get up.
While Lindros was struggling, Kasparaitis was standing near the Penguins' bench, being congratulated by teammates Aleksey Morozov and Andreas Johansson.
The Penguins players were smiling and laughing as Lindros tried to find his bearings.
SUBHEAD: The envelope, please
Some first-half awards:
-Most valuable player who doesn't wear No. 87: Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Nobody gets anywhere without good goaltending, and the Penguins became a good team as soon as Fleury found his game.
-Most disappointing player: Evgeni Malkin. He has knee issues, but his intensity level is uneven, not acceptable for a player being paid like a superstar.
-Least valuable player: Forward Mike Comrie. He was signed at a bargain price for depth, but contributed little before he required hip surgery.
-Most pleasant surprise: (Tie) Defenseman Deryk Engelland and forward Mark Letestu. Engelland has taken on heavyweights like Colton Orr and Jody Shelley and defeated them. His basic game has been solid enough to be a No. 5 or 6 defenseman. Letestu has speed and smarts, and just needs to be more consistent.
SUBHEAD: Earning rewards
When superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sign record-setting contracts, there are headlines.
The Penguins have had a couple of in-season signings that aren't nearly as significant, but still very interesting stories of perseverance.
Defenseman Deryk Engelland signed a three-year contract extension on Jan. 3. The deal will pay him an average of $566,700 through 2014.
Forward Mark Letestu got a two-year extension on Jan. 10. It will pay him $675,000 per season.
Engelland was drafted on the sixth round by New Jersey in 2000. He made his NHL debut with the Penguins on Nov. 10, 2009.
"It was a long road, but it was worth it," he said.
Letestu was not drafted. He made the Penguins as a free agent and his extension is his first one-way deal, meaning there are not separate pay scales for the NHL and the minors.
"I'm just happy it's done," Letestu said. "It's nice to know someone wants you for two years."