All the hype coming into the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins series was surrounding the two biggest stars — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. But after two games, that rivalry has taken a back seat to another storyline.
There are four players on the Capitals and Penguins that used to play on the other side. Each of them played a significant role in Game 2 and should continue to do so for the rest of the series.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik is the biggest name to have recently switched sides in this rivalry, and he took center stage Saturday night’s Game 2. Orpik leveled defenseman Olli Maatta with an elbow to the head inside the five-minute mark of the first period.
Orpik isn’t a dirty player, but he has a very physical style that, ironically, endeared him to Pittsburgh over his 11 years wearing a Penguins uniform. No defensemen has played more games than the 703 Orpik suited up for in Pittsburgh history, which is quite impressive considering the team’s 50th anniversary is next season. He also helped the franchise win its third Stanley Cup.
But as sometimes happens with physical players, Orpik went over the line with this one. He isn’t a dirty player, but the hit was dirty.
The Capitals defenseman was penalized (for inference, of all things) but it should have been a five-minute major. The Department of Player Safety has suspended him three games, which could be a huge blow for Washington.
Under coach Barry Trotz, Orpik has been an instrumental part in the defensive turnaround for the Capitals. His absence could have a ripple effect throughout the Capitals blue line.
Orpik, paired to John Carlson, has played against the Evgeni Malkin line while the Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner pair have mostly matchup up versus the Sidney Crosby unit. Niskanen, another former Penguins blue liner, has played very well in the playoffs. He helped shutout Claude Giroux’s line in the first round and now he’s doing it again to Crosby.
But without Orpik, Trotz might have to break up the Niskanen-Alzner pair, which has held Crosby’s line scoreless through two games. Otherwise, Malkin’s unit, which has two goals in the series, will skate against Washington’s fifth, sixth or even seventh-best defenseman.
If Trotz decides to do the latter, another former Penguins defensemen could play a prominent role — Taylor Chorney. He dressed for 55 games during the regular season and two in the first round versus the Flyers. After not playing in Game 1 against Pittsburgh, he replaced Dmitry Orlov, who was a healthy scratch, for Game 2.
Chorney received just 10:50 minutes of ice time Saturday, but that would likely go up in the absence of Orpik. He might also have to do a lot more defending against Crosby or Malkin.
Even when Orpik returns, stopping Pittsburgh’s depth isn’t going to be easy, and its appropriately in the hands of three former Penguins.
Fittingly, the reason the series is tied at one is because of a former Capital. Right winger Eric Fehr played 419 regular season games over nine years for Washington. Last season, he scored 19 goals and 33 points.
He didn’t have as big of an offensive role in Pittsburgh this season, but now playing alongside Malkin, Fehr is going to receive his share of scoring chances. He took advantage of one Saturday night.
The former Capital tipped Malkin’s pass, beating the nearly unstoppable Brandon Holtby late in the third period for the game-winning goal.
Ironically, Orpik was on the ice at the time of the goal. Fehr now has two goals in seven playoff games this spring.
Which players continue to perform better against their former teams could go a long way in deciding this series.