ARLINGTON, V.A. — During the regular season at MedStar Capitals Iceplex and long after Washington Capitals practice, the Zamboni was on standby to wait for the last player off the ice: defenseman Matt Irwin.
It was routine for the grizzled veteran blueliner, who didn’t get much playing time over the course of the 2021-22 regular season but worked hard to make his presence known both on and off the ice.
After a rough 2020-21 in Buffalo that saw him suit up for 24 games with the struggling Sabres, Irwin explored free agency. He inked a one-year, $750,000 deal with Washington last summer, drawn to the team’s high expectations, winning standard and head coach Peter Laviolette, who he worked with back during his time with the Nashville Predators.
The Capitals hoped for Irwin to bring a veteran presence and depth to the blue line, which lost Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara in the offseason. After a strong training camp, Irwin made the cut as the No. 7 blueliner, a role that he stayed in for the majority of the season.
“It’s all bringing that depth, that experience, the familiarity with the systems, to be able to just kind of jump in and know what’s expected of me, of the system, of the group,” Irwin said at the start of the season.
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So, when it came to his day-to-day, Irwin was a hard worker and utilized practices as much as he could. He put in extra work, brought a positive presence to the room and, when his number was called, stepped up to the plate. This was key for Washington, who had several players end up on COVID-19 protocol midway through the season and also dealt with several injuries. Through it all, Irwin was there to pick up some slack.
“It’s never easy in Matty I’s role. He comes into work every day and he works his tail off,” Laviolette said. “He doesn’t get the call for two weeks, three weeks or whatever it might be. And all of the sudden, you find yourself in the lineup.”
The 6-2, 200-pound blueliner ultimately played in 17 games, dishing four points and 36 hits and 21 blocks. He also scored his first goal since Dec. 6, 2018 in a 9-2 blowout win over the Philadelphia Flyers in April and lifted the spirits of fans and teammates when his classic goal song, “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate, rang out through Capital One Arena. That tally also came just 24 hours after the birth of his child.
“You got to work hard every day, and it is so cliché, but practices are your games,” Irwin explained. “Off-ice training is important to stay in shape. All that stuff, working, watching with guys, watching video, staying positive, being a good teammate. You don’t know when you are going to get in and just being ready every day. Because nowadays, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
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Irwin is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Given Washington’s long offseason to-do list, from addressing goaltending to forward depth, it doesn’t seem likely that No. 52 will return. However, Laviolette and the team still recognized what he brought to the table.
“Matty, he’s a warrior. He’ll jump in there, and he’ll give you everything he’s got,” Laviolette said, adding, “Kevin McCarthy and I have seen a lot of Matt. We know exactly what is there.”
Although it’s unclear what the road ahead will look like for Irwin, he said he was happy to do what he could during his tenure with the Capitals.
“You’re in the NHL, you’ll take any role you can get, right?” Irwin said. “I was excited to do it. Obviously, you just wait your turn to get in the lineup.”