TORONTO — Capitals Coach Barry Trotz seemed to sense a message from Nate Schmidt on Wednesday night, when in Game 4 against the Maple Leafs, he got a second assist in as many games and could have had a goal were it not waved off for goaltender interference. “Should have been his goal,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
“Right now, he’s making a statement going, ‘You’re not getting my spot back,'” Trotz said after the Capitals’ 5-4 victory. “That’s good on Nate.”
Schmidt got into the lineup for Game 3 of this first-round series between Washington and Toronto because defenseman Karl Alzner was ruled out with an undisclosed upper-body injury. The best skater on the Capitals’ blue line, Schmidt has impressed in the past two games against a young, speedy Toronto team. On Monday night, Schmidt was on the ice for every Washington goal. On Wednesday night, he assisted on Washington’s first of the game, and he was on the ice for the game-winner by T.J. Oshie.
Alzner is considered to be day-to-day and skated Wednesday afternoon. But even when he does get healthy, it’s unclear if Schmidt will come out of the lineup because his speed is well-suited in this series.
For Schmidt, this is a sort of reward for his steadfastness. A year ago, Washington traded for Mike Weber at the trade deadline, cutting into Schmidt’s playing time down the stretch. When Schmidt had a costly turnover in the postseason, he was benched. He played regularly this season, one of the Capitals’ most-improved players on the blue line, but got pushed out by the trade-deadline addition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
He remained patient as the team’s seventh blue-liner, and he’s played even better in the opportunities he’s had since the trade.
“Nothing for me to lose,” Schmidt said earlier this week.
“He’s stepped in and played phenomenally,” Holtby said. “Ever since the other game here in the regular season, he’s flying, using his legs, making the quick plays. He’s a great player, and I think it hasn’t been an easy road for him the last couple years with deadline moves and such. I think this time, he’s much more mature. He says, ‘You know what, I’m a good player, and I’m just going to show it when I get an opportunity.’ That’s what he’s doing. He’s going to be a good player for a long time, and he’s showing what he can do.”
Before the game, the Capitals focused on cleaner breakouts with Holtby more involved in playing the puck from the trapezoid and moving it to the defensemen for quicker exits. That negated some of the headaches Toronto was creating with speedy forecheckers. It also highlighted a strength of Schmidt’s, a one-man breakout because of his smooth skating ability.
On a top-four pairing with John Carlson, Schmidt skated 19:10, a playoff career-high, as Trotz shortened his bench to nine forwards and four defensemen. When Washington was shorthanded in a five-on-three situation to start the third period, Trotz had Schmidt on the ice, showing his trust in him.
“It helped me feel the rhythm a little bit better,” Schmidt said. “It helps you feel the game, how it’s pulsating, how the play is going. I thought Carly and I did a really good job, and we limited opportunity and created some of our own.”
Before Monday’s game, Schmidt acknowledged the trade for Shattenkirk was hard for him personally because it meant he wouldn’t be playing anymore. “When you lose a spot to a guy like that, it makes it a little easier to swallow, but he’s a tremendous player, and for me, you can actually learn a little bit from him. That’s the best you can do,” Schmidt said. Shattenkirk appreciated how welcome Schmidt made him feel despite the potential awkwardness of the situation.
“There was never any animosity, that’s for sure,” Shattenkirk said. “It was refreshing. It’s tough to be a new player coming to the locker room and knowing that you’re going to squeeze someone out. But I couldn’t be happier for how he’s been rewarded. … Believe me, he’s human. I’m sure he’s not thrilled with it, but he doesn’t let it show. That’s the most important thing, and it allows me to be comfortable as well.”
“I don’t think he had a Voodoo doll or anything,” Shattenkirk then cracked.
“Fantastic person,” Trotz said of Schmidt. “He brings tons of energy. His drivetrain is real high, all of those things you love in a player. So, he’s got an opportunity and he’s making the most of it.”