ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Jay Beagle‘s sharpest memory of the Washington Capitals’ 2009 playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins was when he tried to run over Brooks Orpik and instead got flattened at center ice.
Orpik is still capable of making that kind of mark seven years later, if he’s able to play. Now with the Capitals, the veteran defenseman missed the final three games of the first round with a suspected concussion, and his status for the start of the second-round series against the Penguins is up in the air.
Feeling “rusty” in his first time on the ice with teammates since a big hit from Philadelphia’s Ryan White on April 18, Orpik said on Tuesday he still has to “do some stuff with the doctors to make sure everything is going right” before getting cleared to play.
It’s difficult to overstate Orpik’s impact on the highly anticipated series between Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, and his old teammates, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“I think he’s our best D, obviously,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a huge key for us, especially against those guys like Sid and Geno. We have to make it tough on them. We have to play physical. We just have to dictate our game on them.”
At 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds, Orpik brings a physical element that’s hard to replace. He was a big piece of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run in 2009 and along with former Pittsburgh teammate Matt Niskanen has been instrumental in making the Capitals’ defense championship-caliber.
“He brings a lot of good experience of knowing what it takes, being professional, his approach and on the ice – a battle-tested guy,” Niskanen said. “I come to do my thing: Defend well, positioning, stick positioning, skating, moving the puck efficiently and contributing in some different areas.”
The Capitals need strong play from their top four defensemen – Niksanen, Orpik, John Carlson and Karl Alzner – against the Penguins, who not only have Crosby and Malkin but offensively potent players like Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin.
Alzner had a “maintenance day” Tuesday, coach Barry Trotz said, after a rough-and-tumble series against the Flyers.
Orpik’s presence was a positive sign eight days after he was leveled by White and appeared dazed as he was helped off the ice.
“It was just one of those ones I didn’t see it coming,” Orpik said. “If I saw it coming, nothing comes of it. I’ve been hit a lot harder than that and been fine.”
Trotz, who would obviously like to have Orpik in the lineup, said the 35-year-old is fine but also said he is day-to-day.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” Trotz said. “Primarily he’s a good defender and a warrior and a good penalty killer. There’s no question he can help us.”
Orpik is one of just three Capitals players with a Stanley Cup ring, along with forwards Justin Williams (three) and Mike Richards (two). By contrast, Pittsburgh still has five players left from its 2009 Cup team: Crosby, Malkin, forward Chris Kunitz, defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s still working to return from his concussion.
There’s significantly more gray hair in Orpik’s still-burgeoning playoff beard than seven years ago, and his standing in the Capitals’ locker room is bigger than it was for the Penguins. Trotz said Orpik is the “father figure” to younger players, and the alternate captain has immense respect from his teammates.
“Brooks is a team-leader guy and he’s got lots of experience in the playoffs and he knows the people around the league,” said center Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose stall is next to Orpik’s. “It’s always nice to have him in the locker room and on ice, too.”
The Capitals can survive without Orpik but face a tougher challenge if he’s not in the lineup.
“He’s an important player for us,” Niskanen said. “Brooks is a good player. It’s not a secret what his attributes are, and he brings a lot to the team.”