He is the one they call “Batya” — a Russian term of endearment that means “dad” — and to understand what Brooks Orpik means to the Washington Capitals, forward Tom Wilson suggests listening to the screams on the ice Saturday when Orpik lifted his stick, spun his right fist high in the air and let out a long “Wooooooo!” before being mobbed by teammates.
“There’s really no better guy to score an OT winner,” Wilson said.
There’s really no one more unlikely on Washington’s roster to have scored the goal that lifted the Capitals to a 4-3 overtime win in Game 2 of this first-round series with the Carolina Hurricanes, which Washington now leads 2-0. But there’s really no one more seasoned for springtime glory — the reason the Capitals re-signed Orpik, 38, for one more year last summer, just one month after trading him in a salary cap-clearing move. His name is already etched on the Stanley Cup twice, and if Washington repeats as champion, it will largely be because of Orpik’s influence both on the ice and inside the locker room.
“You cannot put a price on experience in playoff hockey,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden, who also coached Orpik in Pittsburgh before both men came to Washington five years ago. “I know what happens in playoff time playing against a player like that.”
In Game 1 against Carolina, Orpik was the team’s muscle, with seven bruising hits that could go a long way to wearing down the Hurricanes by the end of this series. In Game 2, he got four more licks in, skated nearly 19 minutes — including a team-high 3:57 shorthanded — and capped it all of with a one-timer of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s feed for the third playoff game-winning goal of his career. He has just four goals in 151 playoff games, and Orpik has 18 goals for his career, which has spanned 16 years and 1,035 regular season games.
“Orpy is a secret weapon,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. Considering Orpik’s last playoff goal was the Game 2 winner in the Stanley Cup finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, he’s not wrong. Orpik now has two postseason overtime winners, which is two more than Ovechkin.
“Everybody tries to get to a different level at this time of year,” Orpik said. “I know me personally, at my age, if I try to play at this level for the whole season, I’d be done halfway through the year. I hate to say I pace myself, but you’ve just got to play a little more conservatively, especially at my age.”
He is the oldest player on the Capitals’ roster and the oldest defenseman in NHL history to score an overtime goal. These playoffs could be Orpik’s final NHL games, or they might not be. Expect him to empty the tank either way. Orpik had offers to sign for two years elsewhere, but he did not want to commit for more than one, unsure of his future. As he has played his two best games of the year this week, has that been in the back of his mind?
“You always take a little bit of time off after the year and reassess where your body’s at and kind of where your family’s at,” he said. “I don’t really think about that, it just kind of distracts you from what we’re trying to do.”
What the Capitals have already done started with signing Orpik five years ago. The team needed to strengthen the blue line, but it also needed a grown-up in the locker room to help change the culture. Orpik’s discipline — from his diet to his training habits — was an example, and even as he nudged teammates in a more regimented direction, he wasn’t overbearing.
“He’s friends with the 18-year-old and everyone right across the board,” Wilson said. And to that end, it’s fitting Orpik’s goal on Saturday afternoon was set up by Kuznetsov, whom Orpik befriended their first year together in Washington. Kuznetsov gave Orpik the “Batya” nickname as a show of his appreciation for a player who took the time to teach him a few funny English phrases and help him buy slick suits to wear on game days.
“He’s like a dad in the locker room to everybody,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “He’s a guy you love to have on your team but you hate to play against.”
In an NHL that’s shifted to puck-moving, offensive defenseman, Orpik’s bruising style is a throwback, something his teammates appreciate even if some fans occasionally don’t. With blue-liner Michal Kempny out for the rest of the season with a torn hamstring, Orpik is playing more, bumped up to a pair with John Carlson in situations when Washington is defending a lead.
Even if this isn’t his last postseason in the NHL, it’s almost certainly his final run with the Capitals — the team is expected to run into some salary-cap constraints again this summer, and he will be an unrestricted free agent. But before Orpik or the team get to that, he still has more highlight-reel moments like Saturday’s to add to what is already a significant legacy in Washington.
“If you asked anyone on our team who you would be the happiest to see score an overtime goal, it’s probably Brooks Orpik,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Come playoff time, you realize why that kind of game is so important. The way he plays, how hard he plays, how hard he makes it — it would be tough to play that way all year, but in the playoffs you can tell no one’s getting by him.
“He’s leaving a mark on everyone, and that wears on a team through a series. That’s how important he is on the ice. And his leadership and his drive and mentality make everyone around him better. That’s why we’re a better team with Brooks Orpik.”