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Former Penguins now big part of Capitals defense

Washington counting on Orpik, Niskanen to shut down Pittsburgh in second round

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Of the four players on the Washington Capitals' roster who participated in the team's most recent series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, defenseman Brooks Orpik is the only one who has a positive memory about how it ended.

That's because Orpik played for the Penguins at the time. 

The Capitals won the first two games of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinal, but the Penguins came back to take the series in seven games and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

"It was a series that could have gone either way," Orpik said. "It was just a couple mistakes that probably cost Washington."

A lot has changed since then; Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle are the only remaining Capitals who played in that 2009 series. With Orpik, now 35, on their side this time, they're hoping things go their way when they begin their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Penguins at Verizon Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports). 

Seeking some stability and experience on their back end, the Capitals signed Orpik and Matt Niskanen on July 1, 2014, after the Penguins allowed both to reach unrestricted free agency. The Capitals gave Orpik, who played 11 seasons in Pittsburgh, a five-year, $27.5 million contract. Niskanen, who was a Penguin for 3 ½ seasons, signed a seven-year, $40.25 million contract.

"When you look back at the blue line, it was an Achilles heel for the Caps," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "There were young players playing back there, some inexperience, some guys that were maybe a little bit undersized and there wasn't a complete balance on what you needed. Obviously, getting Brooks and [Niskanen] really solidified the blue line, and then all of a sudden that became a strength for us."

Trotz had been hired by the Capitals about a month earlier and brought in Todd Reirden as one of his assistants after Reirden had been fired by the Penguins. Reirden, who worked with the defensemen in Pittsburgh, was one of the reasons Niskanen and Orpik decided to sign with the Capitals.

"I think we both saw potential in the dressing room with the talent that we have here and the people that they hired with Barry and Todd coming here," Niskanen said. "The biggest thing for me was 'Where could I go where I had a chance to win?' And 'Where could I go that I have chance to play well?' This was the best fit out of my options, and it's worked out really well."

Coming to the Capitals together was also part of the lure.

"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," Orpik said. "I didn't know how 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." 

Niskanen, 29, will likely have a prominent role in the Capitals' plans to try to slow Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co., as he did in helping to hold Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux in check in the first round. Niskanen averaged a Capitals-high 25:32 of ice time in the first round.

"It's going to be fun," Niskanen said. "Two good teams, a little bit of history there, they're one of our rivals and a chance to move on. So we're excited about the opportunity."

Whether Orpik will be available for the start of the second round is unclear. He returned to practice Tuesday after missing the final three games of the first round with an upper-body injury sustained on a Game 3 hit from Philadelphia's Ryan White.  

"I still have to do some stuff with the doctor just to make sure everything is going right," said Orpik, who appeared dazed when he was helped off the ice following White's hit.

The Capitals hope Orpik will be ready for Game 1.

"I think he's our best D, obviously," Ovechkin said. "He's a stay-at-home D, he plays physical, blocks shots. It's the same like [Karl Alzner], except he's more involved physically. It's a huge key for us, especially against those guys like Sid and [Malkin]. We have to make it tough on them. We have to play physical. We just have to dictate our game on them."

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