Any nerves that rookie defenseman Steve Oleksy may have felt in his NHL debut earlier this year certainly did not appear to carry over into his first NHL playoff appearance Thursday night.
“It felt like another game,” said the 27-year-old Capitals rookie. “Amped up intensity, faster, physical, which helps you get into the game as a player. It was great to be a part of it.”
While his first NHL playoff game may have felt like any other in his 29-game career, Oleksy looked much like he did in his March 5 debut in the scoring department.
With the game knotted up at 1-1 just past the halfway point in the second period, Oleksy hustled back into his own zone to collect a puck that skipped over his stick. What happened next belies his short tenure at the NHL level.
With Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan closing in on him, Oleksy spotted Marcus Johansson waiting at the Rangers’ blue line, a step behind defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. The defenseman then sent a veteran saucer to his swift center, who gathered the pass in stride and buried a quick wrister in the gap between Henrik Lundqvist’s glove and left pad. The strike put the Caps up 2-1 and would prove all Washington would need to take Game 1.
“He can make those skilled plays,” said former Hershey Bears teammate Braden Holtby. “It surprises everyone all the time because of the role he plays but it's not surprising: he's worked as hard as anyone to improve that skill part of his game and it's outstanding. That was a huge play.”
Indeed not all of Oleksy’s teammates were expecting the veteran pass.
“Yeah...uh...no,” laughed Jason Chimera, who scored just 46 seconds after Johansson. “But he's been doing a lot. I think he almost had a goal in the first period when I passed it to him. He seems to get better and better every game. For his first playoff game you'd be really surprised: it didn't look like it.”
Three minutes later Oleksy blocked a close-range shot from Derick Brassard with his face. The puck hit between his jaw and cheekbone and sent the defenseman off to his trainers, but could not keep the rookie off the ice for his next shift.
“It's been a lot worse,” said Oleksy, who sported a large lump along his right jaw after the win. “I skated away pretty fast, I was excited. I thought I was in for about 20 stitches. It kind of hit me flush.”
Luckily for Oleksy, the puck managed to miss anything breakable.
“Teeth were good. I've got the mouth guard in so luckily it hit me just high enough and didn't take out any bottoms.”
Oleksy not only continued to take his shifts after the impact, but laid another hit of the night down on Steve Eminger later in the third. He finished the night with an assist, two shots, a pair of hits, four blocked shots and a plus-one rating in 13:57 of ice time.
“He's been unbelievable,” said Joel Ward. “He made a great pass up to JoJo there, he takes his lumps in the corner there and gives them back. He's just a complete warrior and hard-nosed guy and a good guy off the ice.”
“First playoff game. Tough one to play against the Rangers here and he played great. He was confident, calm, he did all the right things,” said Karl Alzner. “Like I've been saying the entire time he's been here: he's an amazing player. I think it's a start to a great career for him.”
After years of toiling in the AHL, Oleksy finally got his shot at the NHL as the Capitals struggled with blueline injuries one-third of the way into their already rocky season. Unlike other Hershey call ups, Oleksy became a nightly fixture in the lineup. Olesky recorded four points in his first four games, including his first NHL goal on March 10 against the Rangers, and logged over 20 minutes of ice time in six of his first nine starts. Once injured vets were healed and brought back onto the ice, Oleksy kept his roster spot.
“Good things happen to good people,” said Chimera. “He's been working his butt off all year to get up here and he's up here and a mainstay in the lineup.”
“It took a while for someone to realize it. It's nice that they figured out that he could play and he's stepping up to the challenge right now. He's got a good head on his shoulders. He's a smart kid,” said Alzner before correcting himself with a laugh, “I shouldn't say kid because he's a bit older than me.”