- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Matt Niskanen had a few other pressing matters to tend to in late June 2014 — namely, his wedding — so when longtime teammate Brooks Orpik met with the Washington Capitals‘ decision-makers and visited the team’s facility, Niskanen asked him to take a few notes.

Niskanen and Orpik had played parts of four seasons together with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and with their contracts set to expire on July 1 and an indication they wouldn’t be returning, they sought different locations to continue their careers.

Coincidentally, they both had been wooed by Washington, which had recently hired Barry Trotz as coach and Todd Reirden, who coached defensemen in Pittsburgh. They discussed the situation, and satisfied with their decisions, they each agreed to long-term, big-money deals with the CapitalsNiskanen for seven years and $40.25 million, and Orpik for five years and $27.5 million.

“I think we all, obviously, had a pretty good relationship in Pittsburgh,” Orpik said. “It just kind of worked out that way.”

It has worked out well for the Capitals, too, who have used the two veterans to stabilize a defense that had been in remarkable flux. As Washington prepares to face the Penguins in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which will begin on Thursday, there may be no bigger change in the Capitals than their defensive corps — which, combined with record-setting play by goaltender Braden Holtby, has allowed the second-fewest goals in the league over the last two seasons.

“The blue line was an Achilles’ heel for the Caps,” Trotz said on Tuesday. “There were young players playing back there, some inexperience, some guys that were maybe a little bit undersized, if you will, and there wasn’t a complete balance on what you needed. Obviously, getting Brooks and Nisky really solidified the blue line and then all of a sudden, that became a strength for us.”

Niskanen has yet to miss a game while with the Capitals, and his team-high of 24:39 of ice time, which cracked 25 minutes in the first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, reflects his crucial roles on the top penalty-kill and second power-play units.

Orpik, meanwhile, returned to practice on Tuesday, marking the first time he joined his teammates on the ice since apparently sustaining a concussion in a game last Monday. Though it’s uncertain if he’ll play — he missed the final three games of the series against the Flyers — he’s a physical presence who is revered by his teammates, with Trotz referring to him last week as a “father figure” on the team.

“The impact is really kind of endless,” right wing Tom Wilson said. “They’ve done such a good job at kind of reforming this team. We really needed a couple solid rocks like them on the back end. Brooksie’s one of the best at what he does for the past 10 years or whatever in the league, and Nisky’s, I think, one of the most underrated players in the league. He’s unbelievable for us every single night. Definitely stole two big pieces from them.”

Though they were paired together for a stretch in Pittsburgh, Trotz immediately split the two up, mixing them in with the Capitals‘ holdover top pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. He slotted Orpik on Carlson’s left side and Niskanen on Alzner’s right, giving the Capitals a formidable top four that, this year, would have allowed them to ease Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov into the lineup.

Instead, Orpik, 35, broke a bone in one of his legs in November, missing 40 games, and Carlson sat out of 25 games with an ankle injury. That pressed Schmidt, Orlov and Taylor Chorney, another former Penguins defenseman who was signed before this season, into larger roles. It also hastened the Capitals‘ trade for Mike Weber, who had spent his eight seasons in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres.

Orpik, who won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009, credited Niskanen’s preparation — his willingness to watch video and his desire to improve — as among his greatest assets. Niskanen, meanwhile, said Orpik is a “battle-tested guy” who knows how to use his 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame to his advantage.

While the Capitals held the Flyers to just six goals in their six-game playoff series, they’ll encounter a different test in the scorching-hot Penguins, who took care of the New York Rangers in five games after closing out the regular season having won 14 of 16 games.

That’s where Niskanen, and potentially Orpik, will be useful.

“You can’t find guys in the league like them,” center Jay Beagle said. “Having them come into our team is huge. It stabilized the back end and it gives you that veteran presence that makes you confident in the back end. Everyone says that defense wins you championships, and it’s really true. Your D corps has to be strong.”

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