Nate Schmidt skates with the puck against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 18. (Nick Wass/AP)

Entering this season, associate coach Todd Reirden issued a challenge to Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt: Make your slick skating ability the thing most noticeable about you in every game. It was a summer project of sorts that Reirden had for Schmidt, and he came up with others for Washington’s defensive corps to highlight each member’s strength.

“When you walk away from a game and think back on the D and what each guys does, that’s what I want mine to be,” Schmidt said. “That’s kind of our philosophy here, so to speak, going forward.”

Schmidt’s willingness to skate up the ice and join the rush is an illustration of a defense that is trying to be more involved in Washington’s offense this season. Entering the Capitals’ road trip to western Canada this week, the team’s defensemen have combined for 11 assists through five games and all six who have played have recorded at least one point.

They’ve done so while allowing just four even-strength goals; the only third-period goal they’ve surrendered was an empty-netter. Washington also is allowing the fewest shots against per game in the league, averaging 24.8.

“Most importantly, our job is to defend,” Reirden said. “Let’s not forget that, and anything we can do on top of that is always viewed as a bonus with our group.”

“Most importantly, our job is to defend,” associate coach Todd Reirden says. “Let’s not forget that, and anything we can do on top of that is always viewed as a bonus with our group.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

In the past two games, an increased aggressiveness from Washington’s defensemen has generated the bulk of the team’s even-strength scoring. Against the Florida Panthers last week, Schmidt was able to speed through all three zones with the puck before passing it to Justin Williams in front of the net. Two Matt Niskanen point shots in that game were redirected for goals. On Saturday, a Brooks Orpik point shot was deflected past New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist by center Lars Eller in the slot.

The forwards deserve credit for positioning themselves in front of the net in those situations, but joining the offensive attack or getting a point shot are representative of what the team has been emphasizing. It’s also an encouraging sign after Washington reorganized its defense pairings this year, moving Dmitry Orlov to play with John Carlson and Schmidt with Orpik.

“That’s just kind of the nature of the beast, the way that our pairs have kind of lined up this year,” Schmidt said. Reirden “really kind of wants our D pairs to be going. We want to get guys up in the play. You saw that in the teams that were successful, including us, last year, and I thought we could’ve been a little bit more aggressive even last year. I think that’s why you’re seeing it a little bit more this year, because it just puts that much more pressure on other teams. It’s part of the game.”

Schmidt appears to have benefited the most with a new partner in Orpik, who’s the least likely of Washington’s defensemen to jump into the rush. Knowing that Orpik is more than likely going to hang back has freed Schmidt to use his superior skating ability to race the puck up the ice on a breakout, potentially catching the opposing team off guard. That he’s playing on the right side consistently this season has helped, as he has the puck on his forehand when on the attack.

“I mean, it’s just one of the things that we wanted to add to the game this year,” Schmidt said. “It just opens the game up more for other players. I spoke a little bit this year about how Brooks, his physical game, opens up space. For me, my thing for the guys, is that if I keep my feet moving, then that opens up space for the next pair. Someone’s taking a step back and making sure they’re not getting beat up ice.”

After elevating his game defensively last season, Matt Niskanen’s summer project was finding ways to add more point production, which meant getting more shots on net. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

After elevating his game defensively last season, Niskanen’s summer project was finding ways to add more point production, which meant getting more shots on net. But with teams better at shot blocking, it’s a skill to even get shots through from the blue line. Techniques to remedy that involve scouting each team’s defensive zone coverage, creating a shot lane through the movement of a defenseman’s feet and using deception with a fake shot. Niskanen said he still has work to do in that department.

“A couple of muffin shots of mine got tipped and went in in Florida,” he said. “I’m trying to find different ways to get pucks to the net, whether it’s moving laterally or a different type of shot or fakes or whatever it is. I’d like to get more on the net still.”

Niskanen said he has to remind himself to be more involved in the offense, whether it’s getting up the ice to give the rush more numbers or taking shots from the point to generate something that way. The hope is that in time, it’s instinctual, not just for Niskanen, but for the defense corps as a whole.

“Your D have to be part of your attack,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “If your D aren’t part of your attack, you’re not going to get much offense in this league. I don’t care who you are and how good of a player you are, it won’t happen. That’s where the game’s gone to, four- and five-men attack, which we’ve preached that since we’ve got here. That’s always been my philosophy.”