PHILADELPHIA — Washington Capitals head trainer Greg Smith dipped his shoulder underneath the left arm of defenseman Brooks Orpik, and television replays showed the veteran looking dazed. His eyes were wide open until they drooped back toward the ice, and John Carlson skated over to provide more support for his wobbly linemate.
Orpik had just been smashed into the boards by Flyers forward Ryan White during the second period of Washington’s 6-1 win over Philadelphia on Monday night, and he would not return to Game 3. Coach Barry Trotz would not comment on Orpik’s status going forward during his postgame news conference, other than to say the defenseman suffered an upper body injury and will be re-evaluated by the team’s training staff Tuesday.
But the hit, and its aftereffects, could prove more important to the Capitals’ Stanley Cup hopes than the commanding 3-0 series lead they took after Monday’s rout. Orpik’s potential absence, however long it may be, would leave a large void in the Capitals’ blue line. Though he was primarily responsible for the Flyers’ lone Game 3 goal, he has also been the steadying veteran General Manager Brian MacLellan hoped for when he signed Orpik to a five-year, $27.5 million deal before last season.
When Orpik missed 40 games due to a lower-body injury starting in November, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz elected to mostly pair Carlson with defenseman Nate Schmidt. Their extra defensemen on the roster in this series are veterans Mike Weber and Taylor Chorney, although Trotz declined to tip his hand in regards to future lineups given Orpik’s uncertain status.
“We’ll just have to make it work,” Carlson said. “He’s been out, I’ve been out for extended periods of time [and] the guys that stepped up are great hockey players and we’re all confident in them. They were, I think, our backbone of success. Just people that have stepped up when guys go down or get injured.”
The events preceding Orpik’s injury may have contributed to the hit White delivered along the side wall near the home bench at Wells Fargo Center with more than eight minutes remaining before the second intermission.
Less than two minutes earlier, Capitals forward Daniel Winnik picked up an interference penalty for an open-ice hit from behind on Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. On the ensuing power play, Washington’s Mike Richards and Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds were then each handed matching roughing penalties. From there, the game devolved into a brawl, and the Flyers ended the night with 51 minutes of penalties.
Regardless of what lineup changes Trotz could be forced to make, playing without Orpik would alter his defensive plans. He had been using the team’s third defensive pairing, which features playoff rookies Schmidt and 24-year-old Dmitry Orlov, sparingly during the first two games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Both saw their minutes increase Monday with Orpik gone, but it was the top defensive pairing of Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner that shouldered the brunt of the extra work. Niskanen logged more than 26 minutes of ice time in Game 3, and Alzner played for more than 22 minutes.
Though much of the praise has been directed toward goalie Braden Holtby, Washington’s blue line has also enjoyed a strong series. Philadelphia’s top scorers, forwards Claude Giroux and Simmonds, have yet to score a goal.
The Capitals averted further injury issues late in the third period once Orlov was shoved headfirst from behind by Flyers forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Orlov lay prone on the ice while a post-whistle scuffle that resembled a rugby scrum ensued around him.
Though he had a red mark on the bridge of his nose after the game, Orlov avoided serious injury other than the flying wristband from the stands that landed on his face. He returned for the final minutes of action, when the Capitals enjoyed a plethora of power-play time while boos rained down from the home crowd.
“It’s a shame," Niskanen said, “but it means we’re probably doing pretty well.”