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Caps Defense Pairs are Alright, But Not All Right

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Don’t expect a right-handed defenseman on the left side of a pairing

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After a busy day of not only finding out his new destination, traveling to New York, playing in a hockey game before crashing in his new hotel room, Kevin Shattenkirk was just happy that he was finally able to get some sleep.

“Got a solid seven hours in last night,” Shattenkirk said with a smile. “It was really nice to hit the sheets after yesterday.”

Paired primarily with Nate Schmidt on the Capitals’ third pairing, Shattenkirk was eased into the Capitals lineup, though he was given time on the first power play unit.

Miscues were apparent, especially on the lone goal the Capitals surrendered against the New York Rangers, where Shattenkirk found himself on the ice for a goal against, but they were understandable. Shattenkirk hadn’t been given any time to really learn the tendencies of his new team. But, fortunately for both he and the Capitals, Shattenkirk did immediately recognize some similarities and difference between the Capitals and the St. Louis blues.

“It’s not too different,” Shattenkirk said. “I think there’s a few things. The neutral zone forecheck is a little different for me. The terminology is different for me, and just little plays on the ice that these guys make.

“Something that I really saw last night was that they make plays all over the ice,” Shattenkirk continued. “Whenever they have the puck, it’s about keeping the puck and [maintaining] possession. I think, for a player like me, that’s something I like to do. I have a lot of offensive creativity, so I definitely think I’m going to be able to read off of these guys.”

That doesn’t come as a surprise to both T.J. Oshie and Brooks Orpik. Oshie, a teammate of Shattenkirk’s in St. Louis for five seasons, was thrilled to have Shattenkirk join the team.

“It’s great,” Oshie said. “Obviously, we already have a great d-core here. I praise them quite a bit, because they do a lot for us and they are very important to our success. To add Shatty back there to get a little bit more depth is great. You could see in his first night how well he sees the ice, how good he can pass. He’s a great player. It’s great to have him hockey-wise on the ice with us, and in the locker room, even better. One of the bests teammates you could have.”

Oshie was approached by general manager Brian MacLellan prior to the trade. MacLellan sought out Oshie to try to determine what type of player Shattenkirk was. Oshie didn’t tell any of his teammates that MacLellan had discussed the possibility of adding Shattenkirk with him, on chance that the move wouldn’t be pulled off, but he had high praise for the 28-year-old defenseman.

“I think I just said [he was] ‘the best,’” Oshie said. “It’s great to have him here. I’m sure it’s been a bit of a whirlwind for him, but he’s been well-welcomed.”

During Wednesday’s morning skate, Shattenkirk took line rushes with Orpik. That not only suggested Orpik may be nearing a return from a lower body injury, but that he may be partnered with Shattenkirk upon his return. There’s some familiarity there: the two played with one another during the Olympics in 2014.

“I knew him pretty well off of the ice,” Orpik said of Shattenkirk. “I thought he looked pretty good last night in his first game. Obviously he moves the puck really well, and he looked good on the power play too.

“It’s a tough transition for a lot of people when they get traded at deadline,” Orpik continued. “That was something I think Mac and the coaches were probably a little worried about. But he’s got the personality and demeanor where he can go to all 30 teams and fit in right away. He’s a pretty outgoing, laid back guy.”

Shattenkirk was also comfortable with Orpik.

“I know the type of style that he brings,” Shattenkirk said. “He’s a steady, steady guy back there. He’s always going to be there to kind of be in a support role for me.”

With the addition of Shattenkirk, the Capitals now possess three right-handed defensemen that could all comfortably play within the top four. That begs the question, could either one of Shattenkirk, John Carlson or Matt Niskanen play on the left side of the pairing, allowing two of the talented right-handed defensemen to play with one another?

Don’t count on it with a Barry Trotz-coached team in today’s version of the NHL.

“I would say maybe five or six years ago, that wasn’t as important to me,” Trotz said. “Over the years, the importance of it has increased because the game has gotten so fast. Unless you have an exceptional talent who has always played on his offside, it is very difficult because the puck ends up in different places. If you’re here (Trotz motioned a right-handed shot) on the right side, and you get a puck, you can see the whole ice. You can go up the boards, across ice, you can go through the middle. You get it right here (Trotz motioned a left-handed shot), it’s pretty hard to get it up the board sometimes. If you don’t get it in the right spot, it is a tough puck to handle. It’s become a very important factor for us.”

In fact, Trotz has been so pleased with his top four pairings, which for the last several games has been Carlson and Karl Alzner and Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, that he doesn’t even see the need to implement any sort of experimentation with his pairings in the final 20 games of the season.

“I don’t think there will be a lot of change,” Trotz said. “If we do change, we’ll probably go back to what we had before with Nisky and Karl together. I don’t know if there will be a lot of experimenting. But, I think in different situations, coming out of special team situations, we may have guys who will flip flop in terms of partners.”

Currently, the newest addition of the Capitals is staying in a hotel room. However, with a girlfriend and a dog back in St. Louis looking to make the move to Washington, the hotel bachelor life is not going to stick with Shattenkirk much longer.

“I got to look into maybe something short term so we can let the dog run around a little bit,” Shattenkirk joked.

Oshie and Orpik Status

Oshie did not directly say whether or not he would be playing against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday. He admitted that he and the medical team are being cautious due to the current season situation, but that he does feel like he is progressing in his recovery.

“We’re kind of going hour to hour, day to day here,” Oshie said. “Hour to hour, that’s my status right now.”

Orpik said that he felt better during Wednesday’s practice than he had in the last couple of days. Orpik still said he is feeling some pain in his lower body, but he is happy with the recovery progression.

Trotz said that he wouldn’t directly state that either one of Oshie or Orpik are out of the lineup, but that each player is close and they will be further evaluated on Thursday.