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Capitals’ defensemen have combined for second-most assists in NHL

Washington Capitals’ Dmitry Orlov, of Russia, skates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

DALLAS – It’s no longer an odd sight to see the Capitals’ Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik, perceived stay-at-home defensemen, jumping into the offensive attack or positioned in front of the opposing goaltender.

“They’re part of the offense,” Coach Barry Trotz said.

“There’s so many times when you watch video after, and you see there’s maybe a chance that you could join and add something to it,” Alzner said. “If you don’t touch the puck, then at least you have the D-man thinking, ‘Okay, there’s a three-on-two and he can’t play it as aggressive.'”

The priority of the defensemen is to keep the puck out of the net — Washington leads in the league with 2.07 goals-against per game — but the Capitals also want their defensemen contributing to the offense. As the team has been on a scoring tear with five straight games with at least five goals, some credit goes to the defense corps, ranked second in the NHL with a combined 84 assists. The New York Rangers are first with 85 assists.

“Maybe we’re shooting more pucks? I’m not really sure,” Alzner said.

“I think we’re just a little bit quicker, a little bit more sharp,” Nate Schmidt said. “It’s just been leading into better offense for everybody because it just gives our forwards that much more time and gives them the opportunity to make more plays. That’s our goal, and that’s our job, to give them more time and space.”

Capitals defensemen have earned a point in 39 of the team’s 45 games this season and have combined to register 100 points (16 goal and 84 assists). Washington has posted a 28-5-6 record this season in games when a defenseman records a point.

“Executing coming out of your zone clean has allowed you to get up ice,” Trotz said, “Then offensively, I think we’ve used them a little bit more on a little bit of our thought process on trying to stretch the zone a little bit and stuff like that. Just another year of maturity and another year of doing what we do, and I think they’re just executing better.”

Alzner said Washington’s defensemen have talked about making sure, when one defenseman jumps into the play, the other is back on the blue line. When the Capitals have possession in the offensive zone, a defenseman moving toward the net can help create confusion. The corps also has worked at techniques to get their shots through from the blue line, which often creates second-chance opportunities for forwards in front of the net.

John Carlson leads the team in assists (20), but Alzner also credited the improved play of the team’s younger defensemen, Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, as a reason why Washington’s numbers might be up. Orlov has two goals and 19 assists this season, and Schmidt has one goal and 11 assists, after having 14 assists all of last season.

“They’re feeling confident and they’re taking some calculated risks and they’re paying off,” Alzner said. “I think that has something to do with it, just maybe another year of feeling more confident.”

This is the Capitals’ third season under Trotz and associate coach Todd Reirden, who works primarily with the defensemen, and the team had the advantage of returning the same seven defensemen from last season. Orlov, who missed the entire 2014-15 season because of a wrist injury and spent parts of last season playing catchup, has stepped into a bigger role this season.

For Schmidt, it’s his second full season in the NHL, and he’s been on a hot streak lately with one goal and five assists in the past eight games. The best skater on the blue line, he’s been better at utilizing that asset.

“My legs have been feeling really great lately,” Schmidt said. “When my legs are moving, that’s when I’m playing my best hockey. For me, if I can continue to do that, that’s my ticket. That’s my way for me to play well, that’s my MO, that’s the way for me to make an impact on the game, by using my legs. I think that lately things have been going good because I’ve been skating and moving and making and creating space not only for myself but for others.”