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Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz deals with reduced playing time

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The Washington Capitals started Wednesday evening’s game in Ottawa with six defensemen in the lineup, but it became increasingly apparent that only five were taking regular shifts.

Jeff Schultz spent most of Washington’s 5-3 win over the Senators on the bench, playing just 3 minutes 55 seconds and skating eight shifts. When asked why Schultz didn’t play more, Coach Dale Hunter said the stay-at-home defenseman didn’t “fit.”

“It’s one of those games where sometimes they don’t fit in to the picture as much,” Hunter said following the game. “We thought we’d go down to five – especially when we’re down – he’s not an offensive D, so that’s what the plan was.”

After Hunter was named coach on Nov. 28, Schultz was a healthy scratch in the following contest, and in four games after sitting out his shifts per game have steadily decreased. His ice time has hovered in the mid-teens before dropping to less than four minutes in Ottawa.

It is tied for the second-lowest total ice time Schultz has skated in a single game, out of 344 regular season NHL contests. The only time he skated fewer minutes was Nov. 24, 2008 at Minnesota, when he played just 3:09 — but he broke his finger in that contest and went on to miss the next month. Based on comments from the coaching staff, Schultz’s lack of involvement was not injury-related.

Other players typically identified as defense-first blue-liners, like Karl Alzner and John Erskine, were not kept on the bench in the same fashion. Alzner has become the squad’s steadiest defenseman and he finished with a team-high 27:40 against the Senators, while Erskine was limited to only three shifts in the third but played 12:56 total.

“We’re on the road, they have the last line change. We don’t want to get in a situation where we’re mismatched defensively,” said assistant coach Jim Johnson, who works primarily with the defensemen. “It was a very difficult situation, and I told Schultzie it wasn’t for lack of trying to get him out there, but every time we had him out we either had a penalty, went on the power play or had a kill situation or they were coming up with [Ottawa’s top two lines] and I didn’t feel it was the right matchup for him or for our team last night.

“Nothing against him; the time he played, I thought he played well,” Johnson continued. “We’ve just got to continue to work with him and make him better and get him believing that he is the player that he was two years ago.”

In 25 games this season, Schultz has five assists, a plus-1 rating, six penalty minutes and an average time on ice of 16:09 per game. In each of the previous three regular seasons, Schultz averaged no less than 19:46 of playing time per game. The 25-year-old is in the second season of a four-year contract that has a salary cap hit of $2.75 million each season through 2013-14.

Upon being brought in as a part of Hunter’s coaching staff, Johnson has made it a point to help work on Schultz’s footwork and said he wants to see the rangy 6-foot-6, 230-pound blue-liner become more aggressive and explosive in the corners. The need to establish himself as a physical presence has often been a chief critique of the generally mild-mannered Schultz, who has found success in positioning and poke-checks more than throwing his size around.

“It’s a little bit out of his personality,” Johnson said, “but there’s no reason why we can’t get that out of him.”

Schultz, who typically lingers in the dressing room, was not made available to reporters after he took part in an optional skate Thursday and has not commented on his lack of ice time against the Senators. A few days earlier, however, Schultz said he believed Johnson would be able to help him improve his all-around game.

“He’s a good teacher, mentor. His big emphasis is skill development and he’s working with me with pivoting getting back to the puck hard and giving yourself an extra second, half second to make a play,” Schultz said. “Any time I’ve found with a person like that, they take the time and really show you what areas you need to work on, and I think it will be a good thing for my improvement.”

Capitals notes: Mike Green and Jay Beagle skated for the fourth consecutive day but there is no timetable for either to take part in full team practices. Green has missed 13 consecutive games with a strained right groin muscle while Beagle hasn’t played since suffering a concussion on Oct. 13 when he was knocked out by Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham.

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