Brooks Orpik did not mind being in the background after the Washington Capitals clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night in Tampa, nor did he mind shepherding the celebration for a few seconds. The defenseman watched as captain Alex Ovechkin defied superstition by grabbing and skating off with the Prince of Wales Trophy — the honor given to the Eastern Conference champions, which is considered by many to be off-limits to touch — but it was Orpik who skated up to a giddy Ovechkin and told him he needed to put it back on the table for a photo opportunity. Ovechkin immediately followed directions.
Teammates John Carlson and Tom Wilson, who like Ovechkin are now hardened playoff veterans, quickly followed suit. None of those players knew what to do in the moment, but Orpik did. The 37-year-old has long been considered the rock in Washington’s locker room, but his presence becomes even more important as the Capitals prepare for their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in two decades. Orpik is the only player on the Capitals’ roster who has Stanley Cup finals experience — he played in the final round in consecutive years with the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning his only title in 2009 — making him an outlier for a team with less experience on this stage than even its opponent, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
“You want to enjoy it the best you can, because a lot of guys will never get back here again,” said Orpik, who has logged 144 playoff games over his 15-year career. “You want to enjoy it, but you also want to not get caught up in it.”
So that was what Orpik would offer as advice to his Capitals teammates this week, although he learned a long time ago that it was how he carried himself that would leave an impression. In Pittsburgh, he studied veterans Gary Roberts and Bill Guerin, especially during the Stanley Cup run in 2009.
“I wouldn’t even ask them questions. You just kind of watch them and see how they handle certain situations,” said Orpik, who was thinking of that influence as he came off the ice after Washington’s practice in front of more than 6,000 fans Saturday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “You have to be cognizant of that; just know that guys are always kind of watching how you treat certain situations, how you treat people.”
Orpik can shoulder that kind of responsibility, largely because he has been a lightning rod for criticism late in his career and knows how to handle the heat. He has been called a “predator.” He has been labeled slow. He has been attacked for not being a good puckhandler.
But Orpik, who has elevated his play during the postseason and helped Washington post shutouts of Tampa Bay in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, also has provided a seminar for his teammates on how to handle that kind of scrutiny.
“He kind of steers the ship,” Carlson said.
That has been amplified as the Capitals waded through unchartered waters in the playoffs.
“That’s the best thing about Brooksie: He doesn’t even read that stuff. It’s just in one ear and out the other. That’s why he’s had such a long career,” said rookie forward Chandler Stephenson, to whom Orpik provided encouragement after Stephenson didn’t initially make the roster during training camp last fall. When the 24-year-old returned to the team for his first full season, he made a habit of studying Orpik and how he took care of his body. He watched how Orpik conditioned and what he ate.
“He’s 37 years old, and he’s one of the tiptop guys in shape on our team,” Stephenson said. “He’s a big role model for us younger guys, him just being there getting his two cents in if we need a little kick in the [butt] or some confidence, and we’re playing with confidence.”
Orpik was one of the last veterans off the ice Saturday morning, and when he returned to the locker room, his teammates were already speaking about the influence he will have on the most important series of their lives. He was praised for his ability to relate to the younger players when he needs to do so. Wilson, 24, called Orpik a close friend who isn’t afraid to grab coffee and talk life despite their 13-year age difference. Evgeny Kuznetsov, 26, said it’s Orpik’s ability to both dish out and take humor that helps give him confidence. When Orpik speaks, even simply to organize a celebratory team photo, everyone listens.
“His presence, you can’t really put it into words. There’s no stat — that experience, that leadership, the way he prepares, the way he plays big games,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said. “No one probably demands, or gets, as much respect as Brooks Orpik in our locker room.”
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