When Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik stepped on the ice at Kettler on Tuesday morning his teammates greeted him with hoots and hollers.
About an hour later Orpik came off the ice with a smile and without a trace of a limp.
“I felt good,” Orpik said. “Obviously, I haven’t played a game in a while, so I’ve got to get some good practices in and then get more conditioning. Hopefully, I’m ahead of the curve a little bit.”
Orpik, 35, has not played for the Caps since Nov. 10. He suffered a lower body injury in that game and said Tuesday he returned to practice too early (on Dec. 7) and suffered a setback.
“After a month (of trying to skate) I had to shut it down completely and just let the bone heal,” Orpik said. “If I kept skating on it the bone was never going to heal. They told me I had to stay off it for eight weeks. It was a long eight weeks.”
Asked if his bone is completely healed, Orpik paused.
“It feels like it,” he said. “They told me it’s kind of pointless to do another picture (X-ray) because it will show up for a while. It’s more off your symptoms. You go off how you feel and not be stubborn about it. I just had to wait it out.”
Orpik admits he tried to play through the pain and said it was “probably a good lesson” to learn that’s not always the best course of action.
“Obviously, you’re a lot smarter looking back in hindsight, but you don’t like missing games, so you just try to play through things,” he said.
Without Orpik in the lineup the Caps have gone 15-4-4 and have built a 15-point cushion in the Metropolitan Division standings. Much of that success can be credited to defensemen Nate Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov and Taylor Chorney, who saw their ice time increase, as well as Aaron Ness, who played well during his eight-game callup from AHL Hershey.
“I think you feel more pressure to get healthy as quick as you can when your team is struggling,” Orpik said. “And when your team is doing well it definitely takes a little pressure off you. It’s been amazing.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said every player is different when it comes to how much practice they need following an extended absence, but it seems like a week or so of practices would be enough to get Orpik back into game shape.
“He’s had a long haul here in terms of skating by yourself,” Trotz said. “It gets boring and it plays with your mind. You feel like an outsider. He’s a big part of our accountability.”
Trotz said there is no timetable for Marcus Johansson, either. Johansson will sit out tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers with an upper body injury. He skated on his own before practice on Tuesday.
With Johansson and Alex Ovechkin (one-game suspension for missing the All-Star Game) out for tonight’s game, Stan Galiev will play on a top line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, while Mike Richards steps into the role of third-line center between Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson.
Zach Sill will play fourth-line center between Brooks Laich and Michael Latta.