Wednesday December 31st, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Shortly before the puck drops to start Thursday’s Winter Classic, Capitals coach Barry Trotz will find out if defenseman Brooks Orpik is able to play on his injured right knee.

How?

Trotz will ask him.

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“Brooks Orpik [will take] warmups,” Trotz said on Wednesday, not long after the Caps practiced on the ice surface at Nationals Park where they’re scheduled to play the Chicago Blackhawks (1 p.m. Eastern on NBC, pending a slight delay for sun glare problems). “He will tell me if he’s playing. Brooks is a pro enough to know, can I help the team or will I hurt the team? If he feels it is not there and he may hurt us, then he’ll definitely say to me, ‘Hey, I need to bypass this one.’  He’s that quality of a guy.”

Orpik, in his first year with the Caps after a 10-year stay with the Penguins, injured the knee in Monday’s loss to the Islanders.  He did not skate with the Caps on Wednesday nor was he made available to the media after the workout.  He rode a stationary bike while his teammates practiced on Tuesday and did speak briefly afterward.

“Maybe it’s just one regular-season game, but it would be a little disappointing obviously being the Winter Classic,” Orpik told reporters. “Hopefully it responds well.  I’d be kind of disappointed to miss this one. But that’s kind of up in the air for now.  Just try your best to make it feel a little better, I guess.”

That Trotz is willing to let Orpik to make the call speaks volumes about the trust the 34-year-old has already earned with his new team. Though his statistics don’t pop (no goals, eight assists in 36 games), he’s adjusted fairly quickly to a new set of teammates and has given the Caps what they were looking for when they handed him a five-year contract for an eye-popping $27.5 million.

He’s a traditional defenseman who has provided Washington with a respected veteran that it sorely needed on the blueline. Washington goes into the Winter Classic playing much better than it did earlier in the season (6-1-3 in its past 10 games) and Orpik is a major reason why.

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The Caps will adjust if Orpik says he’s a no-go. Second-year man Nate Schmidt, who has been a healthy scratch in recent games, can slide right back into the lineup. But their chances of beating the Blackhawks for a second time this season are greater with Orpik than without, which is not a reflection on Schmidt.

“He’s bought a whole bag of tricks,” fellow defender Mike Green said of Orpik. “He’s such a dominant force on the back end that I don’t think Washington has seen or had in years. His experience, he’s been through it all. He doesn’t need to be vocal. He just shows it on the ice. I thought that it was important that we had that in Washington.

“Brooksie can play 25 minutes game after game. That hasn’t been the case here in the past. He was a nice addition.”

John Carlson, who has been Orpik’s regular defensive partner, has 352 games of NHL experience despite being 10 days shy of his 25th birthday. He was a member, along with Orpik, of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. He’s no slouch, yet he says playing with Orpik has benefitted his game less than half a season into their partnership.

“It’s been great working with him and learning from him, just seeing how he carries himself,” Carlson said. “Great competitor. He takes care of himself and it is good to see.

“He’s big, he’s tough, he’s physical. In certain situations, guys don’t want to be near him so that’s nice," Carlson added. "I think we’ve been playing a lot better lately.  I don’t think we were playing that bad at the start. But little things. We’re breaking the puck out better lately.  Kind of finding where we are on the ice, we don’t even have to talk or yell at each other to get the puck in certain situations. It’s been easy, been a nice partnership.”

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Orpik’s absence on Wednesday meant that there was more room to crowd around defenseman Matt Niskanen as the stall labeled “Orpik” next to him sat empty. Like Orpik, Niskansen came to the Caps on a long-term deal as a free agent from the Penguins. They played together with Pittsburgh for four years, so Niskanen knows him better than any other Cap and knows full well what will be missing if Orpik is unable to play.

“He’s played a lot of minutes. First guy over the boards for penalty kills, end of game situations. Shutdown role with [Carlson].  He’s not flashy or anything. He’s a hard guy to play against because he’s in your face and he’s really strong,” Niskanen said.

“He has winning habits. Every single day, whether you’re playing a game or just going out for practice, he does the right thing every single time and that’s contagious in the dressing room and on the ice.”

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