The Stanley Cup playoffs are all about the unexpected. Lower seeds shock higher seeds, goalies play out of their minds and a relatively unknown player always, always makes a major contribution.
Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy was, generously, No. 12 on the organizational depth chart when the season began. He was a 27-year-old minor-leaguer who had yet to play in an NHL game. He was a healthy scratch at AHL Hershey on its opening night in October.
Yet there he was on Thursday night at Verizon Center, head up as he circled in front of his own net. Inexplicably, Rangers defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh hadn’t yet pushed towards the middle of the ice. To be fair, their forwards weren’t exactly pressuring Oleksy, either. So he took a chance, firing the puck up the middle. Hard to tell which New York forward had finally stepped up – it was either Ryan Callahan or Mats Zuccarello – but all Oleksy had to do was get the puck past that player’s extended stick and he had them beat.
Marcus Johansson turned at the Rangers blueline to deftly catch the puck and skate in onside. Girardi and McDonagh were already cooked. The speedy Johansson fired a shot at goalie Henrik Lundqvist and watched the puck trickle under his pads. It was a beautiful play all the way around and gave Washington a 2-1 lead at 5:39 of the second period.
“I was hoping, but I didn’t think he was even gonna try,” Johansson said of Oleksy’s attempt. “When I saw that he passed it, I knew right away it was gonna make it. It was a perfect pass.”
Not exactly what you expect from a player known better for big hits and lots of fights in the AHL. But Oleksy has tempered that part of his game in the NHL since his promotion on March 5. You’ll still see a big hit or two. But for the most part he’s just been steady. That pass was a bit of unexpected skill – even to some of his teammates.
“I thought that was [Mike Green’s] pass, to be honest,” forward Eric Fehr said. “I didn’t know Steve had that club in his bag.”
It was an eventful night for Oleksy, who shook off a big hit from Rangers forward Arron Asham and later took a puck to the side of his face. He immediately skated to the bench and down the tunnel for what he assumed would be 15 or 20 stitches. Turned out to be just a small cut. But it’s okay. Oleksy and his banged-up mug weren’t exactly going to be modeling in the J-Crew catalog anytime soon.
“That’s been gone a long time ago my friend,” Oleksy cracked. “The way I cut and bruise I waved bye bye to that – I don’t think I ever had a future in that.”
Added goalie Braden Holtby, who played earlier this year with Oleksy at Hershey during the NHL lockout: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without scars, without stitches of some sort.”
Meanwhile, Holtby may have been the one guy in the arena nonplussed by Oleksy’s pass.
“He can make those skill plays,” Holtby said. “It surprises everyone all the time because just 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 he was outstanding. That was a huge play.”
For his part, Girardi was upset he and McDonagh had let Johansson behind them in the first place: “That’s not really acceptable.”
Added McDonagh: “It’s definitely a high-level pass, but something that I think me and Danny wish we had back. We could prevent it just by coming up the ice in the middle when the puck’s out of our zone. Your first look as a defenseman is to look to the middle in case (the puck is) coming up there. We need to just be better at that.”
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