By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009 7:21 PM
With the puck on his stick, Oskar Osala turned his back to a pair of hulking Tampa Bay Lightning forwards, ready to rely on an old friend -- the boards -- to help protect his possession.
Evgeny Artyukhin and David Koci hounded Osala the entire shift, eventually chasing him to the half wall, but as they tried to muscle him away from the puck, the Washington Capitals rookie left wing refused to budge. They managed to strip Osala of the puck, only to be whistled for holding in the same instant.
Osala played just over six minutes in his second NHL game this past Friday during Washington's 5-3 win against Tampa, but it's his ability to thrive off battles in the corner and stake out territory in front of an opponent's net that make him stand out in an organization stocked with forward prospects.
"I try to do that as much as I can, try to protect the puck in the corners," Osala said. "If I can't get a shot myself, then I'll go to the net. It's just something I've always done and if I want to be successful, that's what I have to do. . . . that's what is going to get me [to the NHL]."
Osala is one of eight forwards who have been summoned from the Capitals' AHL affiliate this season. The 2006 fourth-round pick, however, is the only one in the midst of his first North American professional season.
There have been times throughout his 68 games for Hershey when Osala showed signs of a 21-year-old adjusting to the grind of the games and travel. Osala has 23 goals and 14 assists for the Bears, but it's the positioning of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame that brings him the most attention.
"For any defenseman at the NHL or AHL level, it's hard to deal with him," Bears Coach Bob Woods said by phone. "You have to keep him from going to the corners where he finishes his checks and it's tough for somebody to take the puck away from him. With the new rules, you're limited to what you can do and he knows how to use his size well."
Osala, who was sent back down to Hershey after facing the Lightning, is in the first of his three-year, entry-level contract, making $685,000 this season and $1.52 million over the remaining two. Depending which free agents the Capitals retain after this year -- Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season while Eric Fehr and Boyd Gordon will be restricted free agents -- there could be space on the NHL roster for a prospect to win a spot coming out of training camp.
Organizational depth has allowed Washington to recall players who suited specific needs all year, giving numerous players at all positions a shot at the NHL rather than simply shuttling one or two players between teams. According to Woods, the knowledge that any player -- not just the Bears' leading scorers -- can be called up is powerful motivation.
This time, when the Capitals needed a physical forward to make up for the lack of Brashear, Coach Bruce Boudreau decided to take another look at Osala, whose first appearance came back on Dec. 10 against Boston.
"He's got NHL size and strength, so when you've got those guys, you want to give them opportunities when you can," Boudreau said. "We certainly like the big-body guys who can bang to be a fourth-line player and that's what we're using him for [on the latest call up]."
Throughout the season, Boudreau asked his players to go to the front of the net, a trait that is a consistent element of Osala's game. Osala regularly gravitates toward the front of the net, where he's hard to move and well-trained at wreaking havoc in an opposing crease, regardless of the cross checks he often receives -- not that the physical punishment bothers him much.
"Today it's a pretty nice place to be, in front of the net," Osala said with a smile. "If you go back and look at the tapes before lockout, that's something. Those guys who stood there before the lockout, those are really tough guys. So I'm not complaining. I'll be there."