Brooks Orpik couldn’t tell he scored at first, because bodies were blocking his view of the net. A prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, Orpik had never scored a game-winning goal in his career, but when the goal horn sounded, he saw Alex Ovechkin turn toward him with a wide smile. A little stunned, he was then sandwiched by Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov, both swallowing him in a hug.
“I know our bench. If we could’ve gone out to the blue line to hug Brooks, we all would have if we wouldn’t have gotten a penalty for it,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I think they all respect how hard he works, and he’s one of the glue guys in our whole room.”
For three months, Orpik watched his teammates celebrate thrilling goals like this one. But he had to watch from afar, out for 40 games with a lower-body bone injury. On Saturday, he was the center of a 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils.
“It’s a little more fun,” Orpik said of being back in the lineup. “It’s not even necessarily the goal celebration. No matter who you are, whether or not you’re involved in the celebrations or not, I think just being a part of what we’re doing here is a little more satisfying when you’re contributing on the ice.”
The defenseman didn’t have a goal all of last season, but this marked his second of the year and his first two-point game with at least one goal since Nov. 26, 2008. In his third game back from injury, Orpik played 21 minutes 2 seconds and was on the ice for every Washington goal.
He and Orlov were paired as a way to manage Orpik’s minutes after being out for so long, but the duo have complemented each other so well that the team’s three defensive pairings have achieved a balance — every blue-liner played more than 15 minutes but less than 22. Orlov had two assists Saturday.
“We wanted to bring Brooks in a little bit slower,” Trotz said. “He’s actually stepped up and probably played a little bit more than we expected. Him and Orlov have played so well together that it’s refreshing to see that maybe we have three pretty good pairs.”
The marriage of Orlov and Orpik makes sense. Orpik is defensive-minded, typically staying back in the offensive zone. Orlov has plenty of offensive skill, but he can occasionally be a defensive liability. They also can empathize with each other because Orlov missed all of last season after a wrist injury and understands how frustrating Orpik’s recovery has been.
“We just try to play for each other and help each other,” Orlov said. “It’s worked for three games. We have a good game tonight, and Orpy had a goal and an assist. It’s awesome.”
New Jersey and Washington entered the third period tied at two goals apiece. Just past the midway point, goaltender Braden Holtby was beaten by New Jersey’s Reid Boucher, whose knuckleball of a wrist shot deflected off the glove of Holtby, who finished with 21 saves in what was a rocky performance.
Less than three minutes later, Devils goaltender Cory Schneider had similar bad luck, with T.J. Oshie attempting a shot from his knees and somehow banking it in off a New Jersey defenseman’s skate. Just more than two minutes after that, Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov set up Orpik for the decisive tally with 3:58 remaining.
When Orpik was out of the lineup, Washington continued to win. The Capitals are still winning with him back on the ice and nearly have a healthy lineup for the first time since early November. That’s a daunting thought for a team that has 90 points through 57 games.