ARLINGTON — Alex Ovechkin has hogged the spotlight recently for his torrid scoring streak — and deservedly so — but the Washington Capitals play defense, too.
The Capitals are only 18th in the NHL in goals allowed per game, but over the last 14 games, in which they’ve gone 12-2-0, they have given up only 2.79 per game. They’ve done so without the services of defensemen Brooks Orpik and, more recently, Christian Djoos, who have been hurt.
Orpik and Djoos made up Washington’s third defensive pairing during its Stanley Cup run last spring. Madison Bowey had to look on.
Now, Bowey is working to make the most of his opportunity to be part of the Capitals’ top six defensemen.
“Any player in this league would be wrong if they said they didn’t want to play every night and be in the lineup every night,” Bowey said. “That was my goal going into this year, obviously. It was going to be harder with who we had coming back. I think it’s tough to see injuries happen, but opportunities opened up for a lot of guys on our team this year.”
Bowey played 51 regular season games as a rookie last season, but the Capitals felt they needed to bolster their blue line and traded for Michal Kempny a week before the trade deadline. Bowey didn’t see game action the rest of the year, as Kempny assimilated quickly and teamed up with John Carlson to make a formidable pairing.
Looking back, Bowey isn’t upset that he didn’t get to play during the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup.
“I was ready to go if something ever happened. Then we’re fortunate enough to keep everyone not injured and we had a great run,” he said. “But at the same time, you want to be a part of it and being a competitive guy growing up, I always wanted to be a guy that’d be in those big situations. That was a little hard to kind of get used to that, but I trusted the guys and it was just an amazing run all-around and a great experience for me.”
The injuries arrived in the new season. Orpik is on long-term IR and had an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee before Thanksgiving, though he recently started skating by himself. Djoos was hurt Dec. 11 and ended up needing surgery on his left thigh, which will keep him out for weeks.
Bowey paired with Djoos once Orpik was hurt. With Djoos out, rookie Jonas Siegenthaler moved into Bowey’s pairing. Bowey said he wanted to make sure he got “back to playing my style” this year.
“I’m playing with urgency, being a hard guy to play against in our D zone, and then also when it comes to the offensive side of things, just trying to be up on that rush, up in the forwards’ faces and kind of being able to just have a good game all-around and close quick and play fast and move my feet and play my game that really got me here,” Bowey said.
Bowey is at a plus-6 rating so far this year after finishing 2017-18 at minus-3. He also has four assists through 23 games, the first of which came Nov. 11 against the Coyotes when he executed a clearing pass diagonally across the neutral zone to Ovechkin, setting up a pass to Nicklas Backstrom and a goal.
When the Capitals drafted Bowey in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft, they told him they wanted him because he had potential as a two-way defenseman.
“My main focus is always to keep the puck out of our own net and be a hard guy to defend against, but with our team and the skill we have up front,” Bowey said. “But with the skill we have up front I know it makes it a lot easier, I guess you could say, for us to hop on the score sheet just by getting the pucks into those forwards.”
Coach Todd Reirden, a former NHL blueliner himself, has been happy with Bowey’s “poise” in his sophomore NHL year, saying he doesn’t see the same “panic level” in the Winnipeg native that he used to, whether he has the puck or not.
“For me, I felt, having played the position, once you get to 200 games in this league then you’re probably at where your ceiling is gonna be,” Reirden said. “We still have a lot of growth to do with Madison. He’s in the process right now of still getting better.”
At 74 career games, entering Wednesday’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bowey is far from that “ceiling” point. Reirden also pointed out that he’s no longer the young guy, but now the vet helping out a rookie — Siegenthaler. Bowey knew Siegenthaler from their days at AHL affiliate Hershey and called him “a great kid.”
“Like myself, we’re still improving, but I think he’s made a lot of great strides for him in his first few weeks here,” Bowey said. “I know I’m just trying to make it as easy as it is for him, if it’s off the ice or on the ice, I’m just trying to make everything an easy process for him so he feels comfortable coming to the rink every day and coming to work.”
Reirden wasn’t ready to commit to Bowey remaining in the top three pairings once his teammates got healthier.
“This is an important year for him. He’s getting a lot of opportunity,” Reirden said. “We need him to keep growing. It’s tough to find defensemen, right-handed shot defensemen that can skate like that and have the ability to shoot the puck and defend and have a little bit of edge to their game. We need him to keep developing here.”
• Adam Zielonka can be reached at email@example.com.
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