At the end of the first period of Tuesday’s game, everything seemed to be going Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt’s way. In the lineup for just the second time since March, Schmidt had the chance to show something against his hometown team, the Minnesota Wild.
Depending on how you saw it, Schmidt either took a backwards pass from Alex Ovechkin or got a lucky assist from Wild center Eric Staal’s right leg. Either way, the puck met his stick and, with 11.7 seconds left in the period, Schmidt shot and scored through traffic on goalie Devan Dubnyk.
“I was calling swish before it went in, but I’ll take it any way possible,” Schmidt said postgame.
Red-faced and jolly as usual, Schmidt had every reason to be pleased with himself. He’d scored for the first time in 24 games, helping his team snap a four-game losing streak.
On top of all that, the St. Cloud, Minn. native had earned some bragging rights from his summertime training buddies. Schmidt knows plenty of the guys on the Wild who stick around Minnesota during the offseason.
“I see a lot of those guys so it’s always fun to play against some of your buddies and guys you know. Give them a couple ribs when you see them in the summertime,” Schmidt said. “That’s great.”
Schmidt’s trying to play himself back oneo the ice. Tuesday was just his third game in the lineup since the Capitals acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trading deadline from the St. Louis Blues.
“It’s a point of the season where any opportunity you get you got to take advantage of,” Schmidt said postgame. “I thought the last two games have been really productive for [Brooks Orpik] and I. I thought we’ve done a good job with the opportunities we were given. Right now you do all you can do, and I’ll let the chips fall where they may for me.”
Schmidt got his chance after Shattenkirk was suspended two games for a hit on Los Angeles Kings defenseman Kevin Gravel Saturday. On Sunday in Anaheim and Tuesday at home, Schmidt played with Orpik as the team’s third defensive pairing.
In those two games, Schmidt gave Capitals coach Barry Trotz something to think about — even if Trotz said Schmidt would be scratched for the Capitals Thursday game against the Nashville Predators, with Shattenkirk and Orpik as the team’s third blueline pair.
“Our top six, that’s what you are going to see tonight,” Trotz said Thursday. “That’s our top six. Nate is seven, and he played very well and made decisions tougher. He’s in that seventh hole and that’s perfect. It puts pressure on everybody.”
Orpik was out for Shattenkirk’s first game with the Capitals, but the two had been paired together in all five of Shattenkirk’s games since.
It isn’t a surprise to see Shattenkirk return to the lineup - that was always expected - but, as of Tuesday, Trotz wasn’t sure how things would shake out beyond that. He could have scratched Orpik, or made changes to the team’s other defensive pairings to keep Schmidt on the ice.
Orpik hasn’t scored this season in 66 games but has 13 assists and is 32 in the plus-minus. Schmidt’s goal Tuesday was his second of the season in 56 games; he also has 13 assists and is 16 in the plus-minus.
“I thought Nate’s come in and played very, very well,” Trotz said after Tuesday’s win. “His ability to get up ice, his ability to skate, he’s done a really good job. So, yeah, we do have a bit of an interesting scenario here. That’s good. He’s stepped in and is making our decisions tougher. I think that’s an outstanding thing.”
Schmidt hasn’t quite played himself into the team’s top six, but he has given the Captials reason to believe that, should anything happen, he’s there if they need him.