The Washington Capitals seem to once again be warming up at the right time. Winners of four straight games, and seven of their last nine, Washington has reclaimed first place in the Metropolitan Division. As the team is getting hot, one player, Dmitry Orlov, is not. During their weekend sweep in New York, the Caps surrendered only three goals. Dmitry Orlov was directly responsible for two of the goals, and arguably culpable for the third. With the team tightening up its overall team defense, it can not afford the defensive lapses Orlov suffered Friday and Sunday.
Much of the talk surrounding the Islanders lone goal Friday night centered on whether the play should have been blown dead for an offsides call. The controversy and confusion would have been avoided had Dmitry Orlov not made the ill-advised pass that sparked the Islander breakaway.
Orlov had multiple safe options to exit the defensive zone but chose a high-risk cross ice pass which was easily intercepted by New York forward Tom Kuhnhackl. With all the Caps skaters leaving the zone, Kuhnhackl was in alone on Braden Holtby.
Sunday afternoon, Orlov made two blunders that each resulted in Ranger goals. The first, less than a minute into the game, is inexcusable. From below his own goal line, Orlov made a too cute, between-his-legs pass attempting to find Nick Backstrom for the clear.
Instead, the puck found Ranger forward Chris Kreider who fed a wide-open Ryan Strome for the opening goal. Again, Orlov had several safer options to move the puck but opted for an unnecessary, risky pass.
Defensively-deficient Dmitry struck again late in the second period. With Washington clinging to a 2-1 lead, Orlov failed to clear the zone making a lazy pass up the left side boards that was held in at the point by the Rangers. Orlov compounded the mistake by getting caught napping coming out of the corner. Orlov watched the puck up high instead of marking his man down low. He was a step late getting to Ranger forward Filip Chytil who tapped the puck to Pavel Buchnevich for the game-tying lay-up.
Dmitry Orlov is one of the most frustrating players on the Capital roster. When engaged, he plays sound positional defense, lays wicked hip checks, and has the skill to launch speedy end-to-end rushes making him more Orr-lov than Orlov. Too often, though, he has mental lapses, losing his defensive mark or attempting bonehead passes. Turnovers killed the Caps early in the season. As the team rounds into form, it must have every player pulling in the same direction. This season, Orlov ‘s +/- (-8) and Corsi For % (measuring team puck possession while the player is on the ice) are each the lowest of his career. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but paired with the eye test, especially this past weekend, they show Orlov’s game has regressed. Much of playing smart defense in the National Hockey League includes chipping the puck to safety, sending the puck up the boards, exiting the zone to fight another shift. Fundamentally sound defense is rarely glamorous, but absolutely crucial to winning. It seems Orlov sometimes refuses to make the simple play.
Given this information, what should the Caps do? Coach Todd Reirden has a few options. He could scratch Orlov for a couple games. Maybe watching from a different perspective would remind him to simplify his game. Being in the press box (and the dog house) can be a terrific motivator. Reirden could drop Orlov to the third defensive pairing, reducing his minutes and limiting his opportunities to be careless with the puck. The top two defense pairings have been virtually unchanged all season. A shakeup might be a good thing. Or Reirden could chalk up the mistakes to a bad weekend and move on.
So, do the Capitals have a Dmitry Orlov problem? The short answer is “Yes.” Orlov was a key cog in the Caps’ Stanley Cup run last season. Todd Reirden’s ability to solve the problem will be a major factor in their title defense this season.
By Bryan Hailey