Capitals

Quick Links

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

usatsi_10368012.jpg
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.”

Quick Links

In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

usatsi_10431271.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

The big story out of Wednesday's win was the return of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as linemates. The new lines sparked the Caps' offense as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Ottawa Senators. But despite the offensive burst, it was a key penalty kill in the second period that won the game.

Midway through the second period, Ottawa forward Ryan Dzingel finally stopped the bleeding with a goal to make it 4-1. At that point, the game was still seemingly well in hand. Washington had dominated to that point and there was no reason to think the Senators would come back. Even when Dzingel scored the goal, it did not feel like momentum was shifting back in the Senators' favor.

That all changed 30 seconds later.

Alex Ovechkin was called for high-sticking and when play was stopped, Nicklas Backstrom tussled with Ben Harpur and both players were sent to the box leading to a 4-on-3 for Ottawa. Just 44 seconds in, Tom Wilson was called for a slash giving the Senators 1:16 of a two-man advantage to work with. Just one goal would have made it a game. The deficit would have been cut to 2 with over a period remaining.

A game that had seemed all but over suddenly seemed to be somewhat in doubt. Yes, Ottawa still had a steep hill to climb, but a power play goal would have made a comeback seem possible.

But then, the Caps' much-maligned penalty kill unit stepped up and killed off both penalties to keep the lead at 4-1.

How important was that kill?

"When we're on 5-on-3 that was huge," Barry Trotz said after the game. "They didn't score there, I knew we were going to win. I didn't know just by how much, but I knew we were going to win."

Quick Links

Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

usatsi_10423619.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

Barry Trotz did seemingly everything he could to avoid it, but secretly he was thinking just as much about reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as you were. He surprised everyone on Wednesday by putting the two back together on the top line and the move had instant results as the Capitals battled to a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday highlighted the team’s top-six struggles at even strength. Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov all were struggling to produce at the level the Caps need in order to be successful.

You can talk about wanting to avoid making the team too top-heavy all we want, but in the end, being top-heavy is better than not producing at all.

RELATED: LISTEN TO THE LATEST EPISODE OF THE CAPS EXTRA PODCAST!

So with the team’s top players still struggling, the talk after the Calgary game all focused on whether Trotz would consider putting Ovechkin and Backstrom back together, a combination that has been incredibly successful for the Caps in the past.

Trotz, however, seemed hesitant to make the move.

The lines remained unchanged at practice. When asked why not reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom, he told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that he didn’t feel like it. He told the Sports Junkies on Wednesday that Ovechkin can be difficult to play with and that it was hard to find matches for him.

And yet, when the players took to the ice for warmups on Wednesday prior to the game against Ottawa, Ovechkin and Backstrom were together again.

“I've been thinking about it for a while,” Trotz said.

It is obvious why Trotz would put Ovechkin and Backstrom back together. Their chemistry was evident in Wednesday’s game. But Trotz has avoided making that move up to now through the first quarter of the season.

“[Ovechkin] demands such presence,” Trotz said. “He's the greatest goal-scorer in his generation, I've said that many times, and you need a very intelligent player and you have to get used to playing with him because when he gets into those areas … he can score in those tight windows which any other players can't. It's as much getting used to playing with someone else and all that.”

MORE CAPITALS: 4 REASONS WHY THE CAPS BEAT THE SENATORS

“By playing [Evgeny Kuznetsov] for such a long time with [Ovechkin] too,” Trotz added, “It opens up some windows so that we have those options.”

Basically, Trotz’s reasoning is that players need to adjust and learn how to play with Ovechkin. He always knew he could go back to Ovechkin-Backstrom, but it is much harder to start with Ovechkin-Backstrom and split them up out of necessity.

As Trotz would later put it on Wednesday, “If you love something you set it free, if it comes back it was meant to be.”

Clearly, it was meant to be as there’s just no denying that when Ovechkin and Backstrom are together, their play ascends to another level.