With focus on Ovi vs. Crosby, blue line may decide Caps-Penguins

WASHINGTON — Weeks before the Capitals hired Barry Trotz as the 17th head coach in franchise history, the club concluded a forgetful 2013-14 campaign with a makeshift blue line.

The Capitals were still battling for a playoff spot as they prepared for their 79th game of the regular season, a road contest against the St. Louis Blues. Needing a win just to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, Washington’s defensive unit that night consisted of mainstays Karl Alzner and John Carlson, plus a quartet of players who had just 285 career NHL games between them.

“When you look back at the blue line, it was an Achilles heel for the Caps,” Trotz said.

While the Capitals beat the Blues 4-1 that night, they were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention one night later. Many reasons contributed to the Capitals’ downfall, but instability and inexperience on the blue line certainly didn’t help. The 2013-14 Caps dressed an NHL-high 14 different defensemen, including four who made their NHL debuts that season and two others who had fewer than 15 games of NHL experience.

“There were young players playing back there, some inexperience, some guys that were maybe a little bit undersized, if you will, and there wasn’t a complete balance on what you needed,” Trotz said.

What the Capitals’ blue line needed in 2014 was an overhaul. It needed pieces that were battle-tested that could provide size, leadership and stability. Washington finished the 2013-14 campaign ranked 21st in goals-against-average (2.79 GAA) and 27th in shots-against (33.5 per game).

Then-rookie General Manager Brian MacLellan, who was officially named GM the same day that Trotz was hired, made it an immediate priority to improve the Caps’ defensively. Along with Trotz, MacLellan hired former Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden.

Washington Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden talks with the team during a timeout in the third period of Game 1 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday, April 14, 2016, in Washington. The Capitals won 2-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Washington Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden talks with the team during a timeout in the third period of Game 1 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Reirden arrived in Washington after four years in Pittsburgh where he worked with, among others, Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Both Orpik and Niskanen just happened to be hitting unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2014. The Capitals just happened to be in the market.

“I think we both saw potential in the dressing room with the talent here and the people that they hired with Barry and Todd coming here,” said Niskanen.

“The biggest thing for me was ‘Where could I go where I had a chance to win?’ And ‘Where could I go that I chance to play well?’ And this was the best fit out of my options.”

Within hours on that first day of free agency, the Capitals signed Orpik to a five-year, $27.5 million deal, while Niskanen agreed to terms on a seven-year, $40.25 million pact.

Two years into their D.C. tenures, Orpik and Niskanen face a familiar foe in the postseason, as the Caps open a second-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Penguins in Washington Thursday night.

“It’s been huge,” goalie Braden Holtby said of the signings. “They helped us turn everything around last year and are part of the big picture of creating a better atmosphere here, a better mentality.

“They were basically the reason we were able to become one of the top defensive teams.”

The signings represented a new attitude in Washington, where, up until then, the biggest free agent signing of a defenseman in the “Alex Ovechkin Era” was a two-year, $7 million deal to a then-37-year-old Roman Hamrlik in 2011.

“That was a big move for us to go forward, because we felt that we had up-and-coming young forwards. And I think strategically it was a really solid move by Mac and the organization,” said Trotz.

“You’re not giving up draft choices and stuff like that, and those are assets, so that’s the time you go shopping. But at the same time, you’re getting guys that have won, guys that Todd was very familiar with.”

Orpik acknowledged this week that Reirden’s presence on the coaching staff piqued his interest when the Capitals came calling about his services.

“I remember talking to Todd and the coaching staff here before I came, and talking to [Niskanen] a couple days and the night before free agency just to kind of get on the same page,” said Orpik, a Penguins first-round pick in the 2000 NHL Draft. “I didn’t know it was going to play out, but I think myself and [Niskanen] and our wives are pretty happy with the decision and how everything worked out for us.”

Washington Capitals' Brooks Orpik (44) checks Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist (72) into goalie Braden Holtby (70) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Washington Capitals’ Brooks Orpik (44) checks Pittsburgh Penguins’ Patric Hornqvist (72) into goalie Braden Holtby (70) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Along with Reirden’s guidance behind the bench, Niskanen and Orpik have become key cogs in transforming the Capitals’ blue line into of the NHL’s best. Washington finished second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.33) this season and second in the Eastern Conference in shots-against (28.4 per game).

“The impact is really kind of endless,” said forward Tom Wilson. “They’ve done such a good job at kind of reforming this team. We really needed a couple solid rocks like them on the back end. Brooksie’s one of the best at what he does for the past 10 years, and Nisky, I think, one of the most underrated players in the league. He’s unbelievable for us every single night. Definitely stole two big pieces from [Pittsburgh].”

Orpik came as advertised in his first season with the Capitals, leading all NHL defensemen with 306 hits, and teaming with Carlson to form Washington’s top defensive pairing.

When injuries limited both Orpik (41 games played) and Carlson (56 games played) this past season, Niskanen was among those picking up the slack. Niskanen, 29, played in all 82 games this season and led the team in ice-time, skating a career-high 24:40 per game. In the Capitals’ first-round series win against the Flyers, Niskanen played a team-best 25:32 per game.

“We bring different things, Brooks and I,” said Niskanen, who also sees time on Washington’s power play. “With Brooks, when he started in Pittsburgh, they were awful. So he was there when they were awful and he was part of the build to a championship. And then he’s been a pretty steady veteran since that time. He brings a lot of good experience of knowing what it takes, being professional, his approach on the ice. A battle tested guy. And I come to do my thing: Defend well, positioning, stick positioning, skating, moving the puck efficiently and contributing in some different areas.”

The signings of Orpik and Niskanen also eased the burden on Carlson and Alzner, who remain among the Capitals’ top-four defensemen, but can now benefit from the workload and the heavy minutes being spread more evenly than in the past.

“You can’t just find guys in the league like that and that’s why they’re so valuable,” said forward Jay Beagle. “Having them come into our team was huge. It stabilized the back end and it gives you that veteran presence that makes you confident.”

“They’ve been some serious pillars for us back there,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt, who played in 72 games this season. “Helped out Karl really grow his game the last two years. Carly’s really kind of come into his own the last two years as well. He was a little bit more sporadic before Brooksie got here, and now he’s much more solid when they play together.

“That’s just what those guys do. When they came in, that’s just the culture that they brought. Those two guys are more lead-by-example guys, and both have kind of brought that type of mentality to the rest of our D corps.”

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