LAS VEGAS – In a city that rewards underdogs and loves a good long shot, not many saw Brooks Orpik coming. And why should they – a long time had passed since the Capitals celebrated an Orpik goal.
“I don’t remember,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz would say later, asked if he could recall Orpik’s most recent score. “It’s been a long time.”
It had been more than two years, in fact, since Orpik last found the back of the net, way back in February 2016. The current president was still a reality TV star back then, and Las Vegas didn’t even have an NHL team, much less a Stanley Cup contender. Orpik had played in a total of 220 games in that time without once scoring. In the same stretch, his teammate Alex Ovechkin had netted 120 goals. After the drought, even Orpik himself didn’t think the odds were favorable he’d find the back of the net in the season’s ultimate series.
“The chances of me scoring in the finals here aren’t very good,” Orpik said on Sunday’s media day.
But 9:41 into the second period of Wednesday’s Game 2 in these Stanley Cup finals, Orpik scored, and no one was complaining about the long wait. The score gave the Caps a two-goal lead over the Golden Knights and would stand as the game-winner, helping send the series back to Washington tied at one apiece.
“To have success in the playoffs, you need guys — every single guy — chipping in,” said Capitals center Lars Eller. “Sometimes they need to chip in in ways they’re not used to. Brooksie came up huge for us.”
The Caps held a one-goal lead midway through the second when Eller carried the puck into the offensive zone. He zipped it over to Orpik in the right faceoff circle, and the charging defenseman took a rare shot at the net. The puck clipped the elbow of Vegas forward Alex Tuch and took an awkward bounce in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, skipping past the Vegas goaltender, off the post and into the goal.
Every score in the playoffs is cause for celebration, but Orpik’s was unique. It lit a special fire under the entire team because of how much he’s respected and valued in the locker room. Some players were laughing when the red light flashed, and most could be seen — and heard — screaming on the ice.
“My ears are still ringing,” forward T.J. Oshie said after the game.
It wasn’t simply that the goal was unexpected or unlikely. Every player in the locker room seems to feel that Orpik doesn’t get his due credit, and the goal was a chance to shine a spotlight on a player who is a big reason the Caps are still playing hockey into June.
“He’s the heart and soul of the team,” fellow defenseman John Carlson said. “He does so much. He doesn’t get much credit from anyone that writes about him. We love him to death. He brings it every single night, brings guys along, he pushes guys to be better and shows us the way. He’s our leader and it’s nice to see him get that big goal for us.”
Center Nicklas Backstrom was more succinct, calling Orpik the “backbone of this team.”
“He deserves that more than anyone,” Backstrom said of the goal.
It’s a reason Orpik is an alternate captain, and a truth about this team that fans, analysts and stat sheets don’t always recognize. The cameras love Ovechkin’s scoring, Holtby’s stick saves, Backstrom’s slick passing. As for Orpik, it’s sometimes easier to note some of the imperfections – he’s not particularly fast, isn’t the best puck-handler, is much more comfortable as a stay-at-home defensemen than a guy racing toward the net.
His strengths, in fact, rarely show up in a box score. As Trotz pointed out, Orpik earns his money in the trenches, killing penalties, blocking shots, doing “all those dirty things that don’t have those fancy stats.” Perhaps the most crucial stretch of Wednesday’s game was the Capitals’ 5-on-3 penalty-kill in the third period. As always, Orpik was right there, quietly battling.
“Stats and analytics probably aren’t kind to Brooksie,” Trotz said. “He’s old school. He’s a true pro, and he’s probably the most respected guy.”
Indeed Orpik’s value is hard to find on any stat sheet. Detractors point to his Corsi percentage – 43.7 this season – which indicates that opponents are attempting more shots than the Capitals when he’s on the ice. No stat is a true measure of a defenseman’s value and Orpik’s teammates know his contribution is hard to express in numbers.
“What was our Corsi tonight? And did it have any effect on the game?” asked fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I’ve hated that stat when mine is good. I’ve hated it when mine is bad. Whatever. He takes a beating on that. I don’t think anybody in here gives a crap.”
At 37, Orpik is nearly five years older than any other Washington player and might be the least in need of the spotlight. He didn’t talk to reporters following Wednesday’s win. He was involved in a tussle in the closing seconds, sparked by a slash by Erik Haula, which earned the Golden Knights’ defenseman a game misconduct. Orpik was getting stitches from team medical personnel after the game, which left others to brag about his big night. It’s probably fitting.
“He’s a guy who’s a warrior for us,” said center Jay Beagle, “plays great every night, does all the little things right. For him to get that goal, it was awesome.”
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