It doesn’t matter if the puck may have been sailing wide of the net, Nate Schmidt scored, with a little help from Eric Staal’s right leg, and the goal came at a very opportune moment.
Not just because the Capitals, who came in riding a four-game losing streak, needed a goal to kick-start an eventual 4-2 win over the Wild on Tuesday. Not just because Schmidt had not scored in 24 games. And not just because Schmidt is from St. Cloud, Minn., and the players he scored on are the same ones he ribs during summer workouts back home.
The timing was opportune because Schmidt finds himself in a precarious situation with 13 regular season games to play: Kevin Shattenkirk will return from a two-game suspension Thursday, and Schmidt is doing all he can to avoid being the odd defenseman out once again.
“It’s a point of the season where any opportunity you get you got to take advantage of,” Schmidt said postgame. “I thought the last two games have been really productive for and [Brooks Orpik] I. I thought we’ve done a good job with the opportunities we were given. Right now you do all you can do, and I’ll let the chips fall where they may for me.”
Shattenkirk was suspended for a hit on Kings defenseman Kevin Gravel on Saturday, which was just his sixth game with the Capitals. Orpik missed Shattenkirk’s first game with the team due to a leg infection, but the two have otherwise been paired together. That left Schmidt, Orpik’s defensive partner before the Capitals traded for Shattenkirk at the deadline, as a healthy scratch in the other five games.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz assured that Shattenkirk will return to the lineup Thursday, as expected, but he did not rule out Schmidt sticking around. It’s unclear who would come out of the lineup if Schmidt stayed in, but if the coaching staff wanted to avoid making changes to its other two blueline pairings, then Orpik would be the natural choice to scratch.
“I thought Nate’s come in and played very, very well,” Trotz said of Schmidt’s play after Tuesday’s win. “His ability to get up ice, his ability to skate, he’s done a really good job. So, yeah, we do have a bit of an interesting scenario here. That’s good. He’s stepped in and is making our decisions tougher. I think that’s an outstanding thing.”
Schmidt, who is rarely without a toothy grin, was uncharacteristically nervous before the Capitals’ 5-2 loss to the Ducks in Anaheim on Sunday. The 25-year-old had gotten used to his spot next to Orpik in the Capitals lineup, and a stretch of healthy scratches called for an expected shift in his game-day approach. Now, here he was, doing the same thing he’d done 53 other times this season, and he felt antsy as the puck dropped.
“It felt a little weird, I will say that,” Schmidt said Tuesday morning. “When you’re coming off the bench like that you want to be the guy, you want to go in right away and make a big difference. But then you realize that it’s a team game and the team has to make a difference, not just you. Realizing that eased my nerves a little bit,.”
Schmidt was confident in the way he and Orpik moved the puck against the Ducks. Then he netted the Capitals’ first goal (and his second of the season) against the Wild. He joked that he called “swish” before the shot banked off Staal’s leg and past goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
“This time of year you never know what’s going to happen,” Schmidt said. “You just always have to be ready, because with the 13 games we got and the playoffs, things are going to happen and you got to make sure you’re prepared.”