Alex Brandon / AP
Friday, May 25, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Last season Nate Schmidt was one of the last defensemen on the bench for the Washington Capitals, playing only when necessary for depth and sometimes even being scratched from the lineup and watching the game from the rafters.
Next week he’ll be on the ice plenty as he faces his former team in the Stanley Cup Final as the No. 1 shutdown defenseman for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Schmidt was seen as expendable by the Capitals last summer and didn’t make the cut for their protected list during June’s expansion draft. It makes sense, considering he played only 15:29 per game, which ranked seventh among defenseman, and teams only dress six.
Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee, who signed Schmidt to the Capitals as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota in 2013, jumped at the opportunity to build his new defensive core around the speedy 26-year-old.
During his last two seasons in Washington, Schmidt was mostly seen as a speedy defenseman with potential to contribute offensively but not particularly reliable on the defensive side. That’s shown by the numbers, as Schmidt started 59.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and only 40.6 in his own end.
Schmidt has completely flipped that narrative on its head this season, becoming the Golden Knights’ most reliable defender who is almost exclusively matched up against teams' top offensive threats.
“I think it’s confidence and getting the opportunity that I have here,” Schmidt said. “You know you can go out and make the plays against the top guys. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
The St. Cloud, Minn., native led all Golden Knights skaters with 1,690 minutes of ice time this season (22:14 per game).
“When I was (in Washington), in the third period I had the mentality of ‘I don’t have to stop the top guys because that’s not my job,’” Schmidt said. “Now it’s a little bit different. My job here is to go out and do that.”
Schmidt plays major minutes at even strength, shorthanded and on the power play for Vegas, and has contributed evenly on both ends. He racked up new career bests in goals (5), assists (31) and points (36), which was the second highest among Vegas defensemen. He also had 41 hits, 121 blocks and 57 takeaways.
“I knew he was a good hockey player when we got him, but his game has been outstanding all year long for us,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It happened from game one. He’s been solid. He skates the puck, he plays offense for us and gives us good defensive shutdown minutes.”
Now Schmidt faces possibly his toughest challenge yet — clamping down the NHL’s leading scorer Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin has been on a mission this season, leading all players with 49 goals in the regular season, and powering the Capitals to the final with 12 more goals in the playoffs.
“He’s a horse,” Schmidt said. “He’s a big-bodied guy who can skate, make plays and is able to pull the puck around guys. He can let the puck go away from his body, in tight to his body.”
Schmidt does have the benefit of hours upon hours of work guarding Ovechkin during practice as a Capital.
“For me it’s good,” Schmidt said. “I know all of those guys. I know what they like to do. It helps me and it helps our group as well.”
The Golden Knights already played the Capitals twice this season — a 3-0 win for the Golden Knights in Las Vegas and a 4-3 win in Washington, D.C. — so Schmidt has already experienced being on the opposite side of his former teammates.
Never at a loss for words, he expects the chatter on the ice to increase this time around.
“It was here and there, but you have to think it’s going to be amped up in the next series,” Schmidt said, laughing. “It’s gamesmanship this time of year. They know things about me and I know a few things about them.
“There’s a level of gamesmanship involved and it’s all in good fun, but hey for the next two weeks it’s a bunch of bad guys over there,” he said, trying to put on a serious face but with his familiar smile still cracking through. “They’re a bunch of bad guys that I don’t like at all.”