Just two months had passed since Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt could lift his left arm only when underwater in a pool. The nerves had deadened thanks to a fractured shoulder blade, suffered on a minor league assignment initially designed to instill confidence, which turned into a rehabilitation stint no one planned. But look at that arm now, wrapped around teammates, still clutching the stick that notched Schmidt’s first goal of the season and raised in triumph as he hollered into the Verizon Center clamor.
Three games ago, the Capitals recalled Schmidt on an emergency basis, tethering the length of his stay to the health of another blue-liner, an awkward situation he understood. But while defenseman Brooks Orpik kept sitting because of a lower-body injury, Schmidt stuck around, fighting to prove he belonged, to make the team remove that emergency tag and keep him here for the playoffs.
“Like we talked about this week, just trying to make as much of your opportunity as you can, and hopefully you’ll get the regular call,” Schmidt said. “You can’t do much about that more than right now and like I said, being able to contribute like this tonight was huge. We needed a push tonight. They were playing really well. We needed to match their intensity and be better, and I thought we did that the whole game.”
No matter the manner in which Schmidt’s goal unfolded – a blocked shot bouncing straight to his stick, his ensuing slapper deflecting off forward Gregory Campbell’s hand – he still celebrated like a madman, so unlike the 23-year-old rookie who always came to work so chipper that teammates invented a new term to describe his mood: “Nate Schmidt Happy.”
Defenseman John Carlson reached Schmidt first, just like he had Dec. 7, 2013, when Schmidt uncorked his first career NHL goal. Carlson, who had spent 67 straight games paired beside Orpik, wrapped his new partner in a massive hug and, like two Decembers ago, almost drove Schmidt into the third row, slamming him against the glass.
“That was probably the hardest I got hit all night,” Schmidt joked. “I’ll take that at this time of the year for me. Getting that first one of the year feels great. I hope you guys could see his expression too, because I think that might have been as good as mine. It was a big goal for us at the time, and it really put us ahead for the rest of the game.”
Schmidt finished second among all Capitals’ defensemen in even-strength shot differential (plus-eight), according to war-on-ice.com, notched his first NHL point since Dec. 13 and announced his comeback from injury while more teammates flocked to his side.
“It was good,” Holtby said. “I told him it was a goal-scorer’s goal, that snipe.”
Holtby watched from the opposite zone while Schmidt, Carlson and the others celebrated, and from the bench Coach Barry Trotz made note of the uniqueness of the scene. Not everybody, he said later, would spawn such glee.
Eventually, Trotz will be at least partway responsible for determining Schmidt’s fate, for judging this body of work posted in Orpik’s stead and deciding whether the Capitals should spend one of their four non-emergency recalls to grant Schmidt a permanent spot. It already seemed reasonable, given the number of games remaining (12) and banged-up defensive corps. But for now, Trotz watched Carlson drive Schmidt backward and the bench explode. He saw Schmidt pump his fist, open his mouth wide and scream, perhaps a new, reenergized form of Nate Schmidt Happy.
“Schmidty brings a lot of energy to the room,” Trotz said. “I don’t have to say anything. You just watch the reaction of his teammates when he scores a goal, that probably says it all. I can’t put into words better than what they did and how they reacted.”