Alex Ovechkin was putting on his shin guards in front of his locker on Tuesday evening when he directed a video camera providing a look into the Washington Capitals’ dressing room to his left.
Broadcast on video boards throughout Verizon Center was a sight for sore eyes. There, sitting in the stall next to Ovechkin’s, was Brooks Orpik, lacing up his skates a half-hour before the start of a game against the Los Angeles Kings.
After missing more than three months with a broken bone in one of his legs, Orpik made his return that night in Washington’s 3-1 victory.
“It was pretty good,” Orpik said afterward, having logged a secondary assist and 16:43 of ice time. “Obviously, a really good opponent to come back against, so that wasn’t easy, but it’s good. Probably got outplayed the first couple periods, but we found a way to win, which was big, coming off a loss in Dallas.”
The defenseman missed 40 games, one shy of half a season, after going down on Nov. 10 in a game at the Detroit Red Wings. Coach Barry Trotz had said that once Orpik was cleared to play, he wouldn’t limit him in any way. Aside from playing alongside Dmitry Orlov as part of the third pairing, Orpik was once again on the penalty kill unit, taking three short-handed shifts.
Orpik’s return should allow Washington, and especially its defensive corps, a chance to catch its breath. Without Orpik, defensemen Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner had been shouldering heavy minutes — the most, per game, of their nine- and eight-year careers.
Furthermore, having the 6-foot-2, 221-pound Orpik on the ice will help the Capitals counteract some of the bigger, more physical teams in the league, just as they did against the Kings.
“I think you see it late in games, around our net, on the penalty kill,” Trotz said, referring to Orpik’s presence. “He’s a big, strong body. Last night, [against] a team that is a really good puck-possession team because of their size, the L.A. Kings … he killed plays. He shut things off real quickly. You get the puck stopped. If we don’t get the puck stopped in the defensive zone, that’s where all the movement comes from. I thought he did a really good job last night in that area.”
With Orpik out, the Capitals counted more on their skilled defensemen — Niskanen, Orlov and Nate Schmidt, who replaced Orpik on the top pair alongside John Carlson. They were even less rugged when Carlson missed 12 games because of his own injury in late December and early January.
That was especially true on the forecheck, where, save Alzner, Washington didn’t necessarily have the ability to hit its opponents. Orpik also played a more physical role on the opposite end, finishing checks and actively trying to shut down attempts to cycle the puck.
“It’s not just a green-light situation,” Alzner said. “You don’t just run over that guy. It’s not happening. I guess he’s a think-twice player. He’s good at absorbing. He’s good at giving it back, and he’s good at making the simple play while taking the hit.”
Having Orpik back should also help the Capitals more evenly distribute ice time among their defensemen. Orlov has played roughly 15 minutes a game in Washington’s since early January, with Chorney on the ice for around 11 minutes.
Ideally, those six players would all be averaging 20 minutes a game, though their responsibilities on special teams would undoubtedly play a factor in their workload.
“It’s part of being prepared for that,” said Niskanen, who, in an overtime road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 2, was on the ice for 32:04, including 8:02 on the power play. “There’s nothing that you can do other than just play. When you’re in a competitive game, I have no idea what my minutes are like, and I’ve never turned down a shift, so if my number’s called, I’m going back out there.”
Orpik should gradually see an increase in the number of shifts he plays, beginning Thursday when the Capitals travel to face the New York Islanders. He doesn’t expect any issues related to his conditioning, noting that in some ways, the skating he had been doing during his recovery was more taxing than what he would experience in games.
His only concerns were regarding his timing and the physicality of his opponents — things that couldn’t be adequately simulated outside of a game.
“Sometimes, when you sit there for a while, you get back on the ice and just try not to make a mistake because you’ve been sitting there for a while,” Orpik said. “When you’re just kind of in the rhythm of the game, you just go out and play, so that was good.”