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Brooks Orpik applies lessons with Penguins for Stanley Cup-bound Capitals

| Saturday, May 26, 2018, 11:48 p.m.
The Capitals' Brooks Orpik fights the Lightning's  J.T. Miller during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals May 21.
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The Capitals' Brooks Orpik fights the Lightning's J.T. Miller during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals May 21.

Brooks Orpik did not mind being in the background after the Washington Capitals clinched a berth to the Stanley Cup Finals in Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, nor did he mind shepherding the celebration for a few brief seconds.

The Capitals defenseman and former Penguin watched as captain Alex Ovechkin defied superstition by grabbing and skating off with the Prince of Wales Trophy — the crown jewel given to the Eastern Conference champions that has long been considered off-limits to touch — but it was Orpik who skated up to a giddy Ovechkin and told him they needed to put it back on the table for a photo operation. The 32-year-old Ovechkin immediately followed directions.

Teammates John Carlson and Tom Wilson, who like Ovechkin are now hardened playoff veterans, quickly followed suit. None of those players knew what to do in the moment, but Orpik did.

The 37-year-old defenseman has long been considered the rock in Washington's locker room, but his presence becomes even more important as the Capitals prepare for their first Stanley Cup Final in two decades. Orpik is the only player on the Capitals roster who has Stanley Cup experience — he played in consecutive Stanley Cups with the Penguins, winning his only title in 2009 — very much an outlier for a team that has less experienced players on this stage than even their opponent, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

“You want to enjoy it the best you can, because a lot of guys will never get back here again,” said Orpik, who has logged 144 playoff games over his 15-year career. “You want to enjoy it, but you also want to not get caught up in it.”

So that was what Orpik would offer as advice to the Capitals this week, although he learned a long time ago that it was how he carried himself that would eventually leave an impression on his teammates. With the Penguins, he studied veterans Gary Roberts and Bill Guerin, especially during the Stanley Cup run in 2009.

“I wouldn't even ask them questions. You just kind of watch them and see how they handle certain situations,” Orpik said, and he was thinking of that influence still as he came off the ice after Washington's practice in front of more than 6,000 fans on Saturday morning. “You have to be cognizant of that, just know that guys are always kind of watching how you treat certain situations, how you treat people.”

Orpik can shoulder that kind of responsibility, largely because he has often been a lightning rod for criticism late in his career and knows how to handle the heat. He's been called a “predator.” He has been labeled slow. He has been attacked for not being a good puck-handling defenseman.

But Orpik, who has elevated his play during the postseason and helped Washington post shutouts over Tampa Bay in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, has also often provided a seminar for his teammates on how to handle that kind of scrutiny.

“He kind of steers the ship,” Carlson said.

That has been amplified as the Capitals have waded through unchartered waters in the playoffs.

“That's the best thing about Brooksie. He doesn't even read that stuff. It's just in one ear and out the other. That's why he's had such a long career,” said Capitals rookie forward Chandler Stephenson, to whom Orpik provided encouragement after Stephenson didn't initially make the roster during training camp last fall.

When the 24-year-old Stephenson returned to the team for his first full season, he made a habit of studying Orpik and how he took care of his body throughout the grueling campaign. He watched how Orpik conditioned and what he ate.

“He's 37 years old, and he's one of the tip-top guys in shape on our team,” Stephenson said. “He's a big role model for us younger guys, him just being there getting his two cents in if we need a little kick in the (butt) or some confidence, and we're playing with confidence.”

Orpik was one of the last veterans off the ice Saturday morning, and when he returned to the locker room, his teammates were already speaking about the influence he will have on the most important series of their lives. He was praised for his ability to relate to the younger players when he needs to. Tom Wilson, 24, called Orpik a close friend who isn't afraid to grab coffee and talk life despite their 13-year age difference. Evgeny Kuznetsov, 26, said it's Orpik's ability to dish out and take humor that helps give him confidence. When Orpik speaks, including to simply organize celebratory team photos, everyone listens.

“His presence, you can't really put it into words. There's no stat, that experience, that leadership, the way he prepares, the way he plays big games,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “No one probably demands, or gets as much respect, as Brooks Orpik in our locker room.”

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