Playing “Big” in Big Moments: I’m Orlovin’ it

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As one would expect, game outcomes are becoming more hotly contested around the NHL as the regular season grows older. Numerous players on all 30 teams are stepping up at the right moments. The Capitals’ impactful player has been left-handed defenseman Dmitry Orlov.  Here’s more on our left defenseman and his recent key contributions. 

Both Orlov and Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky hail from the same mining city in south central Russia.  They played together on the local hockey club, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, which joined the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) during their tenure there.  Orlov and Bobrovsky took different routes to the NHL, but their friendship endures and they often spend part of their offseason and mid-season breaks together.

Last Thursday night, both Orlov and Bobrovsky were together again, 6,000 miles from their hometown, for an important Metropolitan Division showdown at the Verizon Center. Orlov’s friend had withstood a barrage of shots from the ever-persistent Capitals, and despite two strong periods from the Capitals, it was the Blue Jackets who struck first, less than a minute into the third period.  The Capitals continued to press for the equalizer but the score remained deadlocked at 1-0 with less than seven minutes to go in regulation.  At that juncture, Caps right wing Justin Williams adroitly shielded and maneuvered the puck in the offensive zone to evade Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski and passed it along the boards to Marcus Johansson behind the goal line. Johansson spotted Orlov at the blue line, delivered a crisp pass to him, and Orlov responded with a slap shot screamer above Bobrovsky’s glove into the upper corner of the net. Orlov’s shot gave the Caps the lift they needed.

Two nights later, another opposing goaltender was standing on his head. This time, it was Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored a first period power play goal but Smith was keeping all other shots out.  A little past the halfway point of the third period, Arizona tied the game up 1-1 with an odd man rush.  With less than five minutes to play, however, Orlov pounced on a loose rebound in front of Caps netminder Braden Holtby, accelerated through center ice and placed a pin-point pass to Daniel Winnik in stride entering the offensive zone. Thanks to Orlov’s efforts and skill, Winnik was in a position to coolly deliver the go-ahead goal.

Orlov’s ascension has not been without challenges; he’s had his bout of injuries, including one to his wrist that sidelined him for the entire 2014-15 season and setback his development.  And while Orlov’s puck and offensive talent has always been mesmerizing, he’s also struggled with turnovers that have exposed the team, thereby limiting his ability to gain the full trust of the coaching staff.  While puck possession has been an Orlov strength, he’s most improved this season on spatial and situational awareness from a defense-first prioritization.

Orlov has cut down on, although not eliminated, defensive zone turnovers and intercepted passes that leave the team exposed.  It’s also encouraging that Capitals Assistant Coach Lane Lambert gives Orlov high marks for hockey IQ.  With the Capitals’ emphasis on balanced play, Orlov ranks second in the NHL in plus/minus with a rating of +31, only two behind his teammate, Brooks Orpik.  It’s clear that the coaching staff has confidence in Orlov with the significant increase in ice time he has received from 16:02 to 19:27, by far the biggest percentage increase of any Capitals player at a time when most players are having their time slightly reduced to achieve more balance throughout the lineup.

Orlov’s offensive contributions are comparable to last season.  He’s delivered three more points (32) compared to last season, with eight games to go.  Orlov’s Corsi for percentage (CF%) has remained steady with a strong 53.7, which was the highest among all Caps players who played 10 or more games last season and it’s among the top of Capitals players this season.

Last season, Orlov primarily played on the third defensive-pairing with Nate Schmidt or Taylor Chorney. Orlov started off this season primarily paired with John Carlson, but has had the best chemistry with Matt Niskanen and as a result, they’ve seen the most time together. Orlov even played some power play shifts, contributing a goal and five assists, but with Kevin Shattenkirk’s arrival, Orlov no longer serves in this role.  As we’ve just witnessed, Orlov is finding really important, other ways to have a positive impact on game outcomes.  Orlov’s play has been so strong this season that I personally can’t envision the Capitals exposing him in the upcoming Expansion Draft.

Looking back on the Capitals’ past two games, statistics don’t do Orlov’s contributions justice; that’s real clutch play as the games are winding down and the team finds itself in unenviable positions. Orlov delivered the game-tying goal against the Blue Jackets and he recovered the puck, created the momentum, and delivered the pin-point pass on the game-winning goal against the Coyotes.  I’m looking forward to more big plays from Orlov in big moments.

By Tim Foisie

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