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With Brooks Orpik nearing return, Capitals' defensive pairs coming into focus

With Brooks Orpik nearing return, Capitals' defensive pairs coming into focus

When the Capitals were contemplating whether to trade for Kevin Shattenkirk, General Manager Brian MacLellan sought out Brooks Orpik’s opinion.

Orpik and Shattenkirk played together in the Olympics in 2014.

“I vouched for him hard,” Orpik said. “It’s a tough transition for a lot of people when they get traded at the deadline. That was something Mac and the coaches were a little worried about, but he’s got the kind of personality and demeanor where I think he could go to any of the 30 teams and fit in right away.”

Although Shattenkirk was paired with Nate Schmidt in his Capitals’ debut Tuesday against the Rangers, the team’s long term plan is for the former Blues’ star to skate alongside Orpik, who is working his way back from a nagging lower body injury.

Shattenkirk and Orpik were a tandem in Wednesday’s practice.

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“I watched the game [Tuesday] night and I think we played a little bit together in the last Olympics,” Orpik said. “I also know him pretty well off the ice from [Sochi] and I see him quite a bit in Boston in the summer.”

The off-the-ice familiarity helps. But what Coach Barry Trotz really likes about the Shattenkirk-Orpik pairing is its balance.

“They can complement each other because one is a physical defender and the other is a poised puck moving defender…who has more of an offensive flair,” Trotz said.

With Karl Alzner-John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen forming the other two tandems, each of the three pairs has a lefty and a righty.

“The three pairs we have, they really have good balance,” Trotz said. “They got a little bite to them, a little bit of weight to them, a little bit of offense, some defense. I like our three pairs.”

The pair that’s going to be under the spotlight in the coming days and weeks, though, will be the newest one: Orpik-Shattenkirk.

One practice in, Shattenkirk said he felt some chemistry with Orpik.

“I’ve fortunately been able to see him play firsthand in the Olympics,” Shattenkirk said. “So I know the type of style he brings. He’s a steady, steady guy back there and I know he’s always going to be there to be in a support role for me. Until we get into games and play together it’s going to be a little bit of a process but I’m looking forward to it.”

Orpik echoed Shattenkirk’s sentiments.

“Anytime you get a new partner it’s a little bit of an adjustment,” Orpik said. “You just try to get better every game. You’d wish for it to happen a lot quicker than it does but you just try to stay patient.”

With 20 games remaining in the regular season, the two will have ample time to get on the same page prior to the playoffs, which figures to be a defining moment of the Alex Ovechkin Era.     

“This is probably our best chance to win in here,” Orpik said, asked what message management sent to the dressing room by acquiring Shattenkirk. “Everybody is aware of what our situation is going into free agency this summer. I don’t think it’s an indictment on anyone who got bumped out of the lineup. I think it’s just trying to maximize what we already have here. [Shattenkirk] is obviously a pretty good piece to add to what we already have.”

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NHL goalie for a day: Gavin McHale suits up as emergency goalie for the Caps in Winnipeg

NHL goalie for a day: Gavin McHale suits up as emergency goalie for the Caps in Winnipeg

Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg was a complete nightmare in terms of injuries for the Caps. There was a silver lining, however, as the Caps' nightmare turned into a dream night for local goalie Gavin McHale.

Prior to the game, the team announced Pheonix Copley would get the surprise start due to an upper-body injury to Braden Holtby. Head coach Todd Reirden said after the game that Holtby suffered the injury while working on the ice with goalie coach Scott Murray earlier in the day.

There is an emergency goalie available at every game for either team in case of situations such as the one the Caps faced Wednesday. The most famous example came in March when Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant, not only dressed for the Chicago Blackhawks but actually had to play when the team lost both Anton Forsberg and Collin Delia to injury.

With only one healthy goalie on the roster and no time to recall anyone from Hershey to get to Winnipeg, the Caps had to call on Winnipeg’s emergency goalie. Enter Winnipeg native McHale.

To their credit, the Caps made the best of a bad situation and welcomed McHale with open arms.

“I think the biggest thing is just every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good, just to be a good person, it’s a really important piece of what hockey players are,” McHale said. “This is a pretty successful team last year so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

“Pretty successful last year”? OK, bit of an understatement there, but sure.

Anyway….

McHale, 31, is the goaltending coach for the women’s hockey team at the University of Manitoba. The last time he played competitive hockey was in 2014-15 as a member of the Warren Mecs from the South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League.

He also may or may not be a Jets fan.

“I’m not at liberty to say that right now,” McHale said.

Interestingly enough, lightning has struck twice for McHale as this was not the first time he has been called upon to be a backup in an NHL game. He suited up for the Colorado Avalanche in February as the emergency goalie when Jonathan Bernier appeared to suffer an injury against the Jets. Somehow, McHale did not get to keep his jersey from that night. This time, hopefully he will able to save his Caps sweater as a keepsake.

“If I get to keep it, it’s getting framed really fast,” McHale said. “There’s a couple puck marks on it too actually surprisingly.”

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Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

The Capitals were already facing one of the toughest back-to-back challenges in the NHL. Then they found out their starting goalie would not play and less than nine minutes into the game lost their No. 1 center. 

That about summed up a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday. The last time an NHL team swept a back-to-back set of games against the Jets and Minnesota Wild was 2012. 

Washington played well enough taking a 1-0 lead on a Jakub Vrana goal in the first period and the game was tied until 12:51 of the third period when a shot by Ben Chiarot skipped past goalie Pheonix Copley. The Jets added an empty-net goal to seal the win. 

The loss is one thing. Winnipeg is a tough place to play and maybe the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. But injuries have begun to mount and that’s the big takeaway. 

Holtby showed up to the rink Wednesday morning and it was assumed he’d play after Copley won the game in St. Paul against the Wild. Instead, Holtby was ruled out with an upper-body injury and the Capitals had to sign an emergency goalie – Gavin McHale, a 31-year-old assistant coach for a local women’s college hockey team in Winnipeg. That is less than ideal. 

Holtby’s injury might not be a big deal. You’ll know if Washington recalls top prospect Ilya Samsonov from AHL Hershey for Friday’s game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. 

“That was this morning. [Holtby] came over with our goalie coach and did a skate this morning and was not able to back up tonight or play,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “So he was kind of a game-time decision and he wasn’t able to participate tonight.”

Holtby will be re-evaluated Thursday after he gets continuing treatment for his injury. There has to be concern about Kuznetsov, who took an elbow to the face at 8:52 of the first period from Jets forward Brandon Tanev. Kuznetsov left the game and did not return. 

That left the Caps shorthanded most of the night with Lars Eller playing center alongside Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on the top line. Ovechkin ended up playing 24:21. Eller played 18:48 and Backstrom 21:41. Not having Kuznetsov would be an issue. He’s not a player they can replace for long. 

“Was more precautionary,” Reirden said. “Obviously a blow to the head. We had to continue to evaluate him tomorrow, but we needed to make sure he didn’t return to the game.”

Washington, of course, could look to last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when they missed Backstrom for Game 6 during the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hand injury and the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Oshie was the final blow. He was slammed to the ice by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey and the back of his head hit the ice. Reirden compared the play to a hit by Florida Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson on Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson. He was suspended two games on Oct. 15.  

Oshie certainly didn’t look right. He had to stay on the ice as the Caps pushed for the tying goal with the net empty down 2-1. But it took a while for him to get back to his skates and then he wasn’t able to jump on a loose puck in the slot moments before Winnipeg put the game away at the other end of the ice with an empty-net goal. 

The result is one thing for the Capitals (8-7-3), who are still struggling to generate multiple wins in a row. The status of their three key players is more important after a 1-1-0 start to a four-game road trip. 

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