Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, eight months past his 37th birthday, doesn’t move as fast as he once did. Not that he ever was a speedster. He’s an old-school, physical defender who clears opponents from the front of his net and rarely jumps into the play or figures in his team’s scoring exploits.
It was no surprise, then, that he was the slowest Capital to lift his stick in celebration Wednesday after he scored what stood as the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, which gave Washington a split of the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
Orpik’s dazed expression as he fist-bumped teammates on the bench conveyed his astonishment over his first goal since Feb. 26, 2016, a span of 220 regular-season and playoff games. Their grins conveyed how much he means to them.
"Brooksie's so important to our group. The players know it. He's really played his best this spring,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said Friday after the Capitals practiced in advance of Game 3 on Saturday at Capital One Arena. “It kind of defies logic with his age, but I don't think we're surprised by it with what a professional he is. And what a competitor. The guy is just all heart, and boy, nice to see him get rewarded with a big goal the other night. He's been a rock for us.”
Orpik took a slick pass from Lars Eller and let loose a shot that caromed off the arm of Vegas forward Alex Tuch and off the post before entering the net at 9 minutes 41 seconds of the second period.
He still seemed baffled by the whole thing Friday, when he was asked if he’d forgotten what goalscorers usually do. “I can't remember if I celebrated,” said Orpik, who had a bandage on the little finger of his left hand as a souvenir of a late slash in Game 2. “It was obviously a big moment, so it was pretty exciting.”
It might not have happened if the expansion draft that filled out the Golden Knights’ roster last June had gone differently.
Orpik’s ice time in 2016-17 had declined to its lowest point in nearly a decade, reflecting the increasing value of speed and puck-moving ability for NHL defensemen. The Capitals were grooming youngster Nate Schmidt to take on a top-four role, which would have pushed Orpik out of the picture, but the Golden Knights claimed Schmidt in the expansion draft.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan tried to get Schmidt back from Vegas GM George McPhee but they couldn’t agree on a deal. Schmidt has excelled with the Golden Knights, and Orpik, paired with a variety of partners, pushed his average ice time back above 19 minutes per game. During the playoffs, he’s averaging 16:59.
“Sometimes those stay-at-home guys are very valuable. They can box you out, they can protect your goaltender in terms of not have to have second and third shots, those type of things,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has defended Orpik’s low analytical and advanced-stat ratings. “So they're quite valuable in series where there's a lot of net pressure and a lot of low play.”
Trotz prefers to judge players more on what he feels and sees than by analytics. Orpik disregards analytics entirely.
“I don't think it really reflects anyone's value, to be honest with you. I kind of have a brief understanding of what they are,” he said. “I think as a team this year I guess we have bad shot numbers or whatever, and our team did pretty well. I don't know. I couldn't tell you what guys' numbers are. There's probably guys that have good numbers that I wouldn't want as teammates and guys that have bad ones that I'd want as teammates.”
The most important number now is three, as in the number of wins each team needs to hoist the Cup. For the Capitals, who are 4-5 at Capital One Arena during the playoffs, home ice must become an advantage. To get fans in a festive mood they plan to host an outdoor concert featuring Sting and Shaggy; they’ll show the game on screens outside the arena; and they enlisted hockey fan and “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak to introduce the players.
That won’t match the pregame extravaganzas the Golden Knights stage at home, but the Capitals hope to save their best entertainment for their first home Cup Final game since 1998. NHL playoff scoring leader Evgeny Kuznetsov, who left Game 2 after sustaining an upper-body injury in the first period, skated in the team’s optional practice Friday but Trotz said the Russian forward hasn’t gotten medical clearance and will be a game-time decision.
The Golden Knights are 6-2 on the road and haven’t lost consecutive playoff games. “You lose one game, you don’t hit the panic button,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “Now it’s a best-of-five series and it’s getting a lot of fun.”
Scoring goals won’t be a regular occurrence for Orpik. He hopes winning will be.