ARLINGTON, V.A. — Before every game day, Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Irwin hears the same question from his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Beckem: whether or not he's playing. Because of his role, over the last two years, Irwin's answer more often than not has been "not tonight," with Beckem reassuring him, "That's okay, Dad. Next time." However, this season, Beckem has gotten to see his father lace 'em up more than he has over the last two seasons, and Irwin's welcomed the pressure that comes with it.
Irwin, who has a long-standing relationship with head coach Peter Laviolette, is no stranger to his role as the seventh defenseman. He is used to sitting out for long stretches, and when his number's called, he'll draw in and play his game. That's the case right now, as he filled in for a Dmitry Orlov injury earlier in the season and has remained in the mix with Martin Fehervary still working his back from an upper-body injury and John Carlson out "long-term" after taking a puck to the face.
So far this season, Irwin ahs already surpassed the total games he played in each of the last two seasons, and he feels himself getting more comfortable as he gets back in the swing of full-time NHL action, going from scratch to savior with the Capitals trying to work back up the standings.
"I feel great. I feel really good," Irwin said. "It's nice, obviously, to get into games and get into a routine, but like I've said in the past, I understand my role on this team."
In 26 games this year, the 33-year-old has one assist, along with 30 blocks, 59 hits and three takeaways so far while averaging 12:59 minutes per game. He has primarily filled in on the third pairing, working alongside the likes of Trevor van Riemsdyk or getting time with youngsters like Alex Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen.
Matty Irwin! First goal as a Capital ☑️ pic.twitter.com/a2ZfzCLMKw
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 13, 2022
Getting the pacing and timing of an NHL game back after sitting out for a majority of the time since the COVID-19 pandemic isn't a simple task. However, Irwin, who inked a one-year extension this offseason to continue his role as the extra defenseman in D.C., has become accustomed to it, and because of that, he's been able to work his way back up to speed with ease.
"Whether you hop in for a game or you hop in for 20-something games, you got to be ready and you got to be consistent," Irwin explained. "I think I've been able to do that."
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For Washington, having Irwin back there is a massive weight off the team's shoulders. He is an NHL-caliber defenseman and veteran who brings physicality and battles hard in his own end. He also takes good care of the puck, and his expected goals-against is the lowest on the team among defensemen with at least 20 games played (11.31).
"He doesn't make very many mistakes, he's physical, he's ready to play, he works hard every single day," Laviolette said. "We got a lot of history with Matt. For somebody to play that role and wait for their opportunity and work as hard as he does, that's rare to find. And when he gets in there, he hasn't disappointed us since he's been here in Washington."
And though Irwin isn't known to put up a lot of points, he can still get things going on the rush and bring pressure, while he also doesn't shy away from shooting the puck. Irwin's shots-for percentage (53.09) and scoring-chances-for percentage (51.92) at 5-on-5 rank third among Capitals defensemen.
And, beyond the numbers, the B.C. native brings a lot to the locker room. He has years of experience and is a mentor for the younger guys, and he's also a culture guy who's known for his work ethic and drive.
"I'm an honest person, honest player," Irwin said. "I take pride in coming to work every day, working hard, trying to get better myself, trying to make my teammates better and just supporting them."
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While Irwin's enjoyed the extra minutes, he understands that when Fehervary and Carlson are ready to return, he will find himself drawing back out. He's ready for that moment, and even if he's not getting minutes or a jersey every night, he'll still bring the same energy and the same work ethic to the rink each day.
"The biggest thing, it just stems from not taking a single day for granted in the NHL. I mean, there's no better job in the world," Irwin said. "You could probably ask a million people if they'd take my role. I think a lot of people would jump at that in a second. I don't take that for granted, and that's what helps me be who I am."