By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Just before the national anthem on Saturday night, Sami Lepisto lifted his head as he stood at center ice. What he saw -- a near-capacity crowd at St. Pete Times Forum and, across from him, Tampa Bay Lightning star forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis -- might have intimidated most players about to make their NHL debut.
The Washington Capitals prospect remained poised and focused, then impressed his coaches and teammates with a solid, if not spectacular, showing in a pressure-packed showdown between Southeast Division rivals. The Capitals won, 3-2, thanks to a late goal by Alexander Semin and returned from the road with a 1-1-1 record.
"When I looked up and saw Lecavalier's face and St. Louis's face, I realized this is not a dream," said Lepisto, whose father, Jussi, watched the game over the Internet from his home town of Espoo, Finland. "The pace was so much faster than the AHL."
Against the Lightning, Lepisto displayed all of the characteristics that excited team management when he was drafted 66th overall in 2004: The 23-year-old calmly skated the puck out of trouble, zipped on-target outlet passes to teammates and meted out some well-timed shoulder checks. Officially, Lepisto registered one shot on goal in 14 minutes 16 seconds of ice time, which included 1:17 on the power play.
But what impressed Boudreau most was his composure.
"He wasn't in awe for a guy playing his first NHL game in front of 20,000 people, with Lecavalier and everybody coming against him," Boudreau said. "He was as composed as could be."
The coach wasn't alone.
"The first time I seen him, he cradled the puck," defenseman Mike Green said. "That showed me a lot."
With Tom Poti suffering from a bruised thigh and Brian Pothier sidelined indefinitely with a concussion, the Capitals recalled Lepisto from the minor league Hershey Bears last week as insurance. Then after watching Friday's loss to the Florida Panthers from the press box, Lepisto was tapped by Boudreau to replace the struggling Milan Jurcina against the Lightning. He's the 10th player on the Capitals' roster who also played under Boudreau in Hershey.
Lepisto earned the call-up with a standout season in the American Hockey League. In 38 games with the Bears, he's racked up 32 points (three goals, 29 assists) in 38 games and also boasted an AHL-best plus-minus rating of plus-27.
Goaltender Olie Kolzig was impressed, too. But he also was cautious of heaping too much praise on Lepisto after just one game.
"He moves the puck very well and skates very well, but the thing is, and every player has gone through it, in your first game you're playing on pure adrenaline," Kolzig said. "Let's see five, six games into it, when the excitement wears off and you're settling into the grind and other teams have a read on you. For a first game, against one of the hottest teams in the league, he did very well."
It's unclear how long his first NHL stint will last. But Lepisto proved against the Lightning that he's on the verge of being able to contribute at the NHL level.
"He's a future Cap, that's for sure," Boudreau said.