- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

As Nate Schmidt lay awake in bed that night, only part of the pain was physical.

Hours earlier, Schmidt had been chasing a loose puck in the right corner of his own defensive zone when he felt an opponent closing in. He had believed, at one point, that he was done with the minor leagues, that parts of two seasons with the Hershey Bears were enough to prepare him for the big time — yet in January, there he was, back in a chocolate brown sweater, writhing on the ice.

The force of that hit launched Schmidt into the end boards and shot a crack through the top of his left shoulder blade. With every slight twitch, agony knifed through his back; it seared his mind, too, knowing he was supposed to return to the Washington Capitals the following day after a weekend conditioning stint.

“They say that the chips fall where they may,” Schmidt said, “and they didn’t fall in a very good place.”

Nearly seven weeks passed before Schmidt could return, suiting up once again for the Bears in late February. He remained in Hershey for much of the season, joining the Capitals for a brief playoff flirtation as injury insurance. Despite spending three months in Washington, in which he played the first 31 games, Schmidt sensed his place there had been lost.

That changed in July, when the Capitals, freed from the logjam of defensemen that blocked Schmidt’s ascension, extended him a two-year, $1.625 million contract offer. Tabbed to join the third pairing, Schmidt’s situation further changed two weeks ago, when an unspecified leg injury to Brooks Orpik provided Schmidt an opening on the top line.

Playing roughly seven additional shifts and five more minutes a game, Schmidt has been granted the freedom and confidence he did not have earlier in the season. He assisted on Nicklas Backstrom’s second-period goal on Wednesday, helping the Capitals claim a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

Rather than being suffocated by the responsibility, Schmidt has found comfort in his play.

“I think it was more in just believing in what I’ve done in the American League, what I’ve done in college, what I’ve done in junior, that all that has taken a little bit to translate,” Schmidt said. “I guess my learning curve is a little bit slower, apparently, but just being able to apply my skills to this level … [I] know when to get up in a play and do the things that I know will make me successful.”

A deft skater since high school, when he realized that his quickness and precision could help hide some of his flaws, Schmidt has tried to use that skill to his advantage with the Capitals. In theory, he can limit the ability to move the puck by pressuring an opponent, thereby cutting down on quality scoring chances.

What assistant coach Todd Reirden recognized earlier this season, though, was that Schmidt was relying too much upon his skating ability to get by.

Inconsistent in the defensive zone — Schmidt prefers to avoid backchecking — his breakouts were also erratic, as he admitted his puck-handling “could use some work.” That left Schmidt as a healthy scratch for five games in October as he and Reirden pored over film and reinforced a need to move on quickly from any mental lapses.

“You can get away with a few more mistakes, I think, when you’re playing [on] that third pair or you’re playing against that third or fourth line,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Against a team’s top two lines, they may not be as hard to play against because they may not be as physical, but when you do make a mistake and turn the puck over, that thing can be in the back of the net in a hurry.”

When Orpik was injured on Nov. 12 in a road game against the Detroit Red Wings, Trotz and Reirden, unwilling to split up the second pairing of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, felt comfortable enough with Schmidt’s adjusted approach to move him up alongside John Carlson.

Such a move has provided the Capitals with an offensively skewed back line. Against the Jets, Schmidt noticed confusion because both had the ability to move into the attacking zone; that’s why he was in the right circle and was able to drive the puck across the crease to a wide-open Backstrom.

“I mean, he sees things real well,” Backstrom said. “I’m not surprised, but I thought he was going to shoot it.”

Orpik will return, presumably within the next two weeks, which will once again lead to a reduced role for Schmidt. Unlike earlier this year, when more than his shoulder appeared fractured, Schmidt can rest easy, understanding the process isn’t always straightforward.

“There’s always a path,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes it’s windy. Sometimes you go backwards. But, it’s been good.”

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