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How 37-year-old Brooks Orpik is handling a heavy workload on the Caps' blue lines

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USA TODAY Sports

How 37-year-old Brooks Orpik is handling a heavy workload on the Caps' blue lines

Brooks Orpik played a reduced role for the Capitals last season on the third pairing averaging just 17:47 of ice time per game. This season? Well, that’s gone up a bit.

With no Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk or Karl Alzner, Orpik has suddenly become one of the team’s workhorses.

“This year we lost a lot of luxuries," Orpik said Tuesday after practice. "I think we all knew it was going to be a little bit different and [Matt Niskanen] getting hurt obviously complicated that even more. That put a big hole in our lineup."

At 37 years old, the veteran blue liner currently sits third on the team in ice time per game with 22:16. That would be the highest average he has seen since the 2012-13 season while a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the third-highest average of his career.

RELATED: TROTZ NOT A FAN OF NHL'S 'SOCCER MENTALITY' PROBLEM

Did I mention he is 37?

One of the elephants in the room for the Capitals is that the minutes their top defensemen are playing is not sustainable. John Carlson played 28:51 and 27:38 in back-to-back games over the weekend. Orpik was not far behind with 27:47 and 23:59.

The question for Orpik is how this will affect him game by game and over the course of the season.

In terms of game by game, few players are as prepared to handle a large workload than Orpik who prides himself on his conditioning.

“I don't think conditioning has ever been a problem with me," he said. "It's something I take a lot of pride in. I'm pretty diligent with my diet and getting extra cardio in. I think you prepare yourself the same way every year. You never know what kind of role they're going to give you and whatever opportunity they give you, you just try to make the most of the minutes you have.”

According to Orpik, how taxing any single night ends up being depends more on the type of minutes he is asked to play rather than the number.

“Sometimes you play 20 minutes and you're exhausted and other times you could play 25 and you're not nearly as tired just because of the way the game play's out, but it's not as physical or if you're not playing in your own zone as much. And then shorthanded minutes are a little bit more taxing I think then the other minutes.”

RELATED: NO END IN SIGHT FOR CAPS' INJURY CONCERNS

Yet another reason why it is critical for the Capitals to stay out of penalty box.

In addition to his offseason training, Orpik has also turned to another NHL player for guidance, Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter.

"If you watch the way he plays, he doesn't waste any energy," Orpik said of Suter. "He uses his body real well, but he's not real physical. Physically, you've got to pick your spots a little bit better. If you go out there and run around and try to be really physical, it's tough to play more than 20 minutes no matter how good a shape your in. A lot of times you just try to play better positionally. You still want to have the same approach physically but you just try to pick your spots a little better."

Suter’s workload has been ridiculous throughout his career. In the six seasons he has spent with Minnesota, his average time on ice during that time has been a whopping 28:17. If there is anyone who knows how to handle big minutes, it’s Suter. At 32, however, Suter has played those minutes through the prime of his career. Orpik’s challenge is to learn how to continue playing effectively late in his career.

The silver lining for the Caps is that Orpik won’t have to do this forever. Not only is Matt Niskanen expected to return from an upper-body injury in November, but rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey will be able to handle more and more playing time as the season progresses. Until then, however, Barry Trotz seems content with riding his veteran blue liners as far as they can take the team.

Said Orpik, “That's why they make training camp as hard as it is.”

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise. Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Towes intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. Toews' interception led to a 2-on-0 in the second period. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal. He also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board. Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.

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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Blackhawks

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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Blackhawks

The Caps were outplayed in just about every facet of the game on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. It is hard to narrow it down to just a few reasons they ultimately lost this game, but here are the most glaring.

The first period

The opening 20 minutes of this game was, to be blunt, awful. The Caps managed only nine shots attempts, six of which went on net. Chicago, meanwhile, fired 21 shots on goal with 29 total shot attempts. Washington was held to 21 shots on goal or less six times this season, so to allow 21 to an opponent in 20 minutes is not a good start. Of course, you can’t allow that many shots and escape unscathed and Washington found themselves down 3-1 at the end of the first. The Caps were outskated and sloppy with the puck and thoroughly dominated by the Blackhawks.

A bad early goal

Chicago did not need any help scoring in this one. The first goal of the game came when Jonathan Toews just threw a quick shot from the corner on net that caught Braden Holtby off guard. Holtby allowed six goals on the night, but only two of them looked soft. It was an inauspicious start to the game and a save Holtby really needed to make.

Two breakaways in the second period

A breakaway represents a breakdown in the defense. When you give up two in a span of 1:10, including a 2-on-0, that means you're not having a good night. In the second period, Brooks Orpik tried a cross-ice pass that was easily picked off by Toews that launched a 2-on-0 with him and Patrick Kane. There may not be a worse tandem in hockey to give up a 2-on-0 against than that. Just about a minute later, Ryan Hartman weaved his way through the defense to spark his own breakaway. It wasn't a good pass that launched him or a bad line change. Hartman's feet were moving and the Caps' were not. As bad as the first period was, it looked as if the Caps had stopped the bleeding as the score remained 3-1 with less than four minutes remaining in the second which is in no way is an insurmountable deficit. In the remaining four minutes, Chicago extended its lead to 6-1.

Defense

Holtby allowed six goals in this game before he was replaced by Philipp Grubauer for the start of the third period. Of those six, only two were "soft" goals Holtby should have had. The other four were the result of poor defense. The breakaways were already described in detail above. The second goal of the game came when Orpik and Madison Bowey both challenge Brandon Saad as he drove into the Caps' zone, leaving Vinnie Hinostroza to go in on net unimpeded. When Saad got the pass to him, Holtby did well to stop the initial shot, but could not get the Saad rebound shot. In the closing seconds of the first period, Holtby stopped a Carl Dahlstrom shot, but the rebound went to a wide open Nick Schmaltz who had all the space he could want to shoot in the rebound. John Carlson finished the game with a minus-3, Orpik, Bowey and Christian Djoos were minus-2 and Matt Niskanen was a minus-1.