Two weeks ago, when Steve Oleksy signed a three-year deal with the Capitals and was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, no one saw his success in the NHL coming. Not even Oleksy himself.
He recorded four points, including his first NHL goal, in his first four contests, and Thursday night he surprised the Capitals once more. Facing the Hurricanes at PNC Arena in Raleigh, just his sixth NHL game, Oleksy stepped up to skate a game-high 27 minutes and 55 seconds for Washington when it found itself down to only five defensemen when Tomas Kundratek was forced to leave the game with an injury.
That is a daunting workload for a veteran NHL defenseman, let alone a 27-year-old who just emerged on the scene. But it’s a challenge Oleksy’s worked his entire life for.
“I felt great,” Oleksy said. “As a hockey player you prepare for that you never know what’s going to happen in the course of 60 minutes you know I train, I’m ready to play as much as I possibly can. It helps to get into the game you feel a lot more part of it.”
Coach Adam Oates praised the efforts of all five defensemen who finished the game, most of whom were forced to cope without a full complement of blue liners for the second time in four games. But he singled out Oleksy’s night as “incredible”.
To truly realize how far Oleksy has come in his development this season one needs to first consider that when Oates arrived in Hershey to serve as co-coach during the lockout, the Michigan native was sitting out as a healthy scratch.
Oates admitted that even he didn’t know that Oleksy was capable of the type of steady performance he put forth in Carolina. In addition to the sheer volume of minutes, Oleksy blocked four shots and dished out two hits.
“Good for him, really good for him. When we were in Hershey with Calle [Johansson] and Troy Mann down there, he was a sponge,” Oates said. “He wasn’t even in our opening lineup down there. And where he’s come to and the minutes he plays, the decisions he’s making out there, handling the physical play and the speed, he’s done great.”
Washington signed Oleksy and recalled him on March 4 largely because Oates wanted to have a balanced blue line and the team was short a right-handed shot. Considered a tough-guy in the AHL, he posted 151 penalty minutes for the Bears, but Oates made it clear from the start that he needed Oleksy to focus on playing not dropping the gloves.
In his six games, Oleksy has fought only once. He pounded Hurricanes forward Drayson Bowman Tuesday and what was the only real source of inspiration to the capacity crowd at Verizon Center that night. While it’s an element to his game, his ability to step into the lineup and help fill the void as injuries continue to pile up on the blue line is a more significant one.
Oates never expected to be relying on Oleksy as much as he is now.
“I don’t think anybody did,” he said.