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.
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.