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How will Capitals make room for return of Orpik?

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How will Capitals make room for return of Orpik?

Day by day, conditioning skate by conditioning skate, Brooks Orpik is preparing to parachute back into the Capitals’ lineup after more than three months healing from a bone fracture from a blocked shot.

Orpik’s return could come as soon as Thursday night in St. Paul, where he could take the pregame skate, or Saturday night in Dallas when the Caps visit the Stars.

Whenever his return comes, the Caps’ coaching staff will have a difficult decision on their hands.

When Orpik left the lineup on Nov. 10, the Caps had a record of 10-4-0. During his absence they’ve gone 29-5-4, in large part because of an improved defense corps that also helped the Caps go 9-2-1 without John Carlson.

That leaves head coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden with two tough choices: Where do they insert Orpik, and who comes out?

Nate Schmidt is averaging 19:19 of ice time on a top pairing with Carlson (he averaged less than 16 minutes before Orpik’s injury) and has played so well (2 goals, 10 assists, plus-14) it would be an injustice to pull him off the top unit.

Matt Niskanen (3 goals, 20 assists, plus-18, 24:45) and Karl Alzner (3 goals, 15 assists, plus-17, 21:30) have been rock steady all season as the Caps’ second defense unit and will remain intact.

That means Orpik almost certainly will return to the lineup on the third pairing, playing limited minutes while resuming his penalty killing duties. Orpik is a left-handed shot and plays the left side.

MORE CAPITALS: NOBODY'S PERFECT

Dmitry Orlov (5 goals, 14 assists, plus-12, 15:22) and Taylor Chorney (0 goals, 5 assists, plus-13, 12:55) have made up the Caps’ third pair throughout much of Orpik’s absence. Both are left-handed shooters, with Orlov playing the left side and Chorney the right.

Orlov, 24, would seem to be the perfect fit for Orpik because of his offensive flair. Since returning from a wrist injury that stole all of last season from him, Orlov has worked hard to improve his overall defensive play and decision making this season and has been a plus-5 in his last eight games.

“He’s making better decisions,” Trotz said. “His one-on-one play is much better, his containment is much better than it was maybe a couple games ago. It’s game management, knowing how you can change a game.”

The Caps also have the option of working Orpik into the lineup by playing seven defensemen and 11 forwards, perhaps sitting right wing Michael Latta in favor of Orpik. Either way, the Caps will be monitoring closely the play of Orpik, determining whether they will need to upgrade their blue line before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.

Maintenance for Richards: Caps fourth-line center Mike  Richards sat out Wednesday’s practice with what Trotz called a maintenance day. If Richards cannot play Thursday night against the Wild, look for Stan Galiev to replace him on the fourth line, with Brooks Laich moving to center.  

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Capitals Extra Podcast: Trade deadline story time with Alan May

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NBC Sports Washington

Capitals Extra Podcast: Trade deadline story time with Alan May

Alan May knows a thing or two about the trade deadline.

Over the course of his NHL career, May was traded five total times, four at the trade deadline. He sits down with Rob Carlin on a special edition of the Capitals Extra Podcast to tell stories from his playing days about what it was like getting traded.

This one's a can't miss for hockey fans. You can listen to the episode here on the Capitals Extra page or with the player below.

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NHL Awards tracker: Where would the Caps' offense be without Ovechkin?

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Awards tracker: Where would the Caps' offense be without Ovechkin?

The Hart Trophy is given to the player judged to be the most valuable to their team. With the Caps currently struggling in almost every aspect of the game, consider this: Just where would they be without Alex Ovechkin?

Washington ranks 10th in the NHL in goals per game with 3.05. Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 36. He has scored an incredible 19-percent of his team's goals. No one on the Caps is within 20 goals of the Caps' captain.

That's not a typo. Evgeny Kuznetsov ranks second on the team with 16 goals. No other team in the league has a larger separation between its top two scorers. In fact, only three teams have a difference that's in the double digits: Vancouver (11), San Jose (10) and New Jersey (10).

Ovechkin is almost singlehandedly propping up Washington as a top-ten offense. If you think about just where this offense would be without him, there's a pretty strong case to be made that Ovechkin is as valuable to his team this season as any other player in the league.

SEE THIS WEEK'S 2018 NHL AWARDS TRACKER HERE

Here are the Caps' hopefuls for awards this season:

John Carlson

In contention for: Norris

Carlson is fifth among all defensemen with 45 points, but his case goes beyond the numbers. With a blue line that has featured two rookies the majority of the season, an aging veteran in Brooks Orpik and that had to deal with an injury to Matt Niskanen, the Caps have asked a lot of Carlson this season and he has always been up to the task.

Alex Ovechkin

In contention for: Hart

Few players, if any, are as important to their team's offensive production and therefore its success than Ovechkin has been this season.

Check out who the top candidates are for the league's major individual awards in this week's 2018 NHL Awards Tracker!