To no one’s surprise, Brooks Orpik was the most popular man in the Washington Capitals’ locker room after he scored an overtime goal to give the Capitals a 2-0 first-round series lead over the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I think if you asked anyone on our team who you would be the happiest to see score an overtime goal, it’s probably Brooks Orpik,” Braden Holtby said.
Reporters didn’t have to ask. Teammate after teammate offered up the same opinion, almost to the letter.
Most teams in the NHL don’t have a precise equivalent of Orpik, the Capitals’ 38-year-old alternate captain. A “defensive defenseman,” as it’s called, Orpik is part of a dying breed, those who grind it out with physicality and rarely appear in the score sheet.
But he’s also the Capitals’ most playoff-experienced player with 151 games — not Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom — thanks to the 11 seasons Orpik spent with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s the locker-room dad; the Russians on the team even nicknamed him batya, an informal Russian term for “father.”
Now in his fifth season in Washington, Orpik has rubbed off on the team’s younger players, and he always seems to bring something extra come Stanley Cup Playoffs time.
“When we get to this time of the year, I’m probably not counted on for too many goals,” Orpik said, “but I think if you want to have the long runs (in the playoffs), you need everybody kind of chipping in and doing things they don’t normally do.”
There is undoubtedly a bit of irony and humor in the picture when any team’s least-active goal-scorer rifles a puck into the net. Orpik himself said last summer that he didn’t expect to score during the Stanley Cup Final — before scoring the decisive goal in Game 2 to break a 220-game goalless streak.
“It’s a little extra special (when Orpik scores) and you get a little extra excited to go and jump on him and rub your glove in his face and give him a hug,” T.J. Oshie said.
Oshie and his teammates did exactly that to thank Orpik for his game-winning goal. But their appreciation for Orpik goes much beyond his rare goals.
“Brooksy does so much for all of us on the ice, off the ice,” Oshie said. “He sets the tone out there physically for us, blocking shots. Never complains about anything. Guys like that, leaders that don’t score a ton of goals, they come up in big moments for you.”
Last June, the Capitals knew they needed to move goaltender Philipp Grubauer and found a trade partner in Colorado. But as part of the deal they had the Avalanche take on Orpik’s contract as well, which represented a $5.5 million cap hit on Washington’s books.
The Avalanche then bought out Orpik’s contract, and after a while he returned to the Capitals on a more manageable one-year, $1.5 million deal — $500,000 of that coming in performance bonuses. During preseason, Orpik said he understood why it needed to be done but still felt “blindsided” by the move.
But as cheesy as it sounds on its face, coach Todd Reirden said Saturday that “you cannot put a price” on Orpik’s playoff experience and what he means to the Capitals.
“I’ve been through it the last 10 years in the league, actually 10 years with him,” Reirden said, referencing their shared time in the Penguins organization, “and I know what happens in playoff time playing against a player like that. I’ve seen him score more than one overtime, series-clinching (goal), if you go back to my (past) time with him. So, he has just a knack for that and the guys obviously rally around it and are real excited to see somebody that is the complete pro.”
That excitement will be crucial as the series shifts to Carolina this week. The Hurricanes are preparing to host their first playoff game at PNC Arena in 10 years, and while Raleigh isn’t considered a traditional hockey market, the team pumped up its fan base all season with its patented “Storm Surge” celebrations after home wins.
Throughout this series, the Capitals have countered that first-time exuberance with their Stanley Cup experience — which ties back to Orpik’s wisdom and fire that even fellow veterans respect.
“He’s a terrific guy. He’s like a dad in the locker room to everybody, very professional guy,” Backstrom said. “It’s a guy you love to have on your team but you hate to play against.”
At 38, Orpik could be in the midst of his final season, not that he’s taking that into consideration.
“Last year, it could’ve been my last year,” he said. “Every year’s a little bit different. I think you always take a little bit of time off after the year and reassess where your body’s at and kind of where your family’s at. I don’t really think about that, it just kind of distracts you from what we’re trying to do.”
Orpik steps up in the playoffs not because he can sense a countdown clock ticking, but because he preserves himself for the big stage.
“At my age, if I try to play at this level for the whole season, I’d be done halfway through the year,” Orpik said. “I hate to say I pace myself, but you’ve just got to play a little more conservatively (in the regular season), especially at my age.”