On March 14, Nate Schmidt scored a goal against his hometown Minnesota Wild. His 12 plus minutes of ice time would be all the shifty defenseman would see for the next three weeks, bumped from the Washington Capitals lineup for the newly acquired Kevin Shattenkirk. At the end of the regular season, Schmidt was able to dress for four games, picking up two points in place of the injured John Carlson. But for the playoffs, Schmidt was to be benched.
The 25-year-old always wears a smile on his face, but when I talked to him before Game One of Washington’s first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs he admitted being a health scratch tired him mentally.
“You have to prepare like you’re playing every night,” Schmidt said. “It’s tough.”
Schmidt used his free time in an unusual way. Instead of just studying what Capitals defenders were doing, assistant coach Todd Reirden helped Schmidt focus on players on other teams.
“I watch the games,” Schmidt told me at the time. “To rewatch the video again… you don’t need to.”
Instead Schmidt reviewed tape of players like Alex Goligoski, someone Schmidt tries to model himself after as a fellow mobile defenseman.
“They’re some things I’ve picked up from him,” Schmidt said of Goligoski, adding that he then discussed the video with Reirden, “just to keep it fresh.”
But Schmidt noted something when we spoke last week: “Even if everyone’s healthy, you never know what can happen. You never know. You never know.”
Now, Schmidt has gotten his chance, with Karl Alzner missing the last two games with an upper-body injury. Schmidt has responded with two assists in two games, including a magisterial behind the net feed to Nicklas Backstrom in Game Three. He added another helped in Game Four and had a goal that was waved off on questionable call.
During the regular season, 55 percent of shot attempts went the Capitals way at five-on-five with number 88 on the ice, something only 11 NHL D-men bettered.
After Washington’s Game Two loss, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz noticed that the Capitals were chasing the game — and the speedy Leafs. Schmidt, however, is a one man breakout capable of gliding past opponents all the past the redline and with enough time to get back in position. He is the perfect player for this series. One Monday night, Schmidt was on the ice for all of Washington’s goals.
“He’s got an opportunity,” Trotz said of Schmidt. “He’s making the most of it.”
Schmidt has long been the odd man out when the Capitals bulk up on blueline depth during the trade deadline. Before Shattekirk, it was Mike Weber. We all know how that turned out.
Alzner skated Wednesday and is day-to-day according to the team. But when Alzner is healthy, Schmidt might finally get to be the guy pushing someone else out of the lineup.
“Right now, he’s making a statement going, ‘You’re not getting my spot back,” Trotz said Wednesday night.
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