Shift by bone-rattling shift, the Capitals learned in Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings what they had been missing with defenseman Brooks Orpik out of the lineup the previous 40 games.
Yes, the Capitals went 30-6-4 during Orpik’s absence and were reassured during that stretch that guys like Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Taylor Chorney could carry the defensive load.
But a few of the Capitals quietly admitted they were lacking the snarl and physical presence that Orpik, even at the age of 35, still provides.
“His smarts and positioning all over the ice are really good,” said Niskanen, whose average ice time of 24:41 this season is well above his previous career average of just over 19 minutes. “We’ve had a handful of games in the past month or so when we’ve given up more odd-man rushes than we’d care to give up and the way he thinks the game is important for us.”
In his first game back in the lineup since breaking a bone on a blocked shot back on Nov. 10, Orpik took 21 shifts, logged 16:43 of ice time (2:42 on the penalty kill), blocked two shots and dished out five hits.
He also pushed big bodies Anze Kopitar, Vinny Lecavalier and Milan Lucic out of the Capitals’ goal crease like a snow plow rumbling through the streets of Clarendon.
“He’s a key player for us,” said Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who stopped 39 shots and had another 18 blocked by teammates. “He’s won the Stanley Cup. It’s nice to have him back. He’s simple and he keeps the shots to the outside. He blocks shots, makes the right reads and for us goalies it’s great to have guys like that in front.”
Orpik played on a third defense pairing with Dmitry Orlov and Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he thought they were the Caps’ second-best pairing, behind Niskanen and Alzner. Orpik, who averaged just over 19 minutes a game before his injury, said working himself back onto a penalty killing unit with Carlson helped get him into the flow against the Kings.
“Past the first couple of shifts, it was just getting used to the speed again,” Orpik said. “Obviously, it was a really good opponent to come back against, so that wasn’t easy, but it’s good.
“… I think taking a couple penalties probably wasn’t good for our team, but it was good for me personally, just getting a couple penalty kills in gets you in the game pretty quick.”
Trotz said he did not see the rust on Orpik that most players would collect after more than three months on the shelf.
“I didn't see a lot of that because I think a veteran player manages the game very well,” Trotz said. “He made some great outlet passes, there was no panic in his game. His sense of space was pretty good and those things usually aren't there, but he kept it smart and he kept it simple and he was good.
“It was nice to have a big body like that to throw around some of their big bodies because they get to the net very well and I thought that was an element to our back end that we could use and you see why he's so important to us.”
Niskanen said that while Orpik’s return should help the Capitals maintain their record-setting pace during the regular season, it’s his presence in the playoffs that should make the biggest difference.
“When time and space gets hard to come by in a tight playoff series the better he is because he excels at those kinds of games,” Niskanen said. “He doesn’t mind playing that style where you have to fight for every inch of ice.”
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