Columbus Blue Jackets forward Sonny Milano was a healthy scratch for Thursday night’s Game 1 against the Washington Capitals, which meant the 21-year-old was in street clothes and sitting high above the ice in the press box at Capital One Arena. But he knew his role would change as soon as his teammate, Alex Wennberg, crumbled to the ice after taking a hit from Capitals forward Tom Wilson in the third period.
That was a momentous play in Columbus’s 4-3 overtime win and could change the complexion of Game 2. Wilson’s hit was reviewed by the league, which chose not to suspend him. But Wennberg is doubtful for Game 2, and Milano has been thrust from his perch in the upper deck back onto the ice, where he’s expected to fill the void.
“Playoffs are tough. There’s probably going to be injuries if you’re going to make a long run. So I knew I had to stay ready, and I knew my time was going to come,” Milano said. “I’m definitely prepared.”
Part of that preparation stems from Milano’s recovery from his own medical issues. He suffered a torn oblique in early January and missed 13 games before he returned in late February and scored during a 5-1 drubbing of the Capitals in his first game back. That put him back on track to complete his best season in the NHL; he finished with 14 goals and eight assists. Milano had played in just seven combined NHL games in the previous two seasons and was more popular in hockey circles for YouTube videos featuring his stick work in a parking lot back in 2014.
Now he has an opportunity to help a Blue Jackets team that wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut during the regular season but still escaped with a win in Game 1. When Columbus Coach John Tortorella was asked after Saturday’s practice whether the steep learning curve that Milano faced this season had prepared him for Game 2, Tortorella simply said: “We’ll see. He’s playing.”
“He still scares the hell out of me in a lot of situations,” Tortorella continued. “But he’s a guy, another guy that can make something out of nothing and score a big goal for you. We’ve gone with that attitude the last couple of years: ‘We’re not going to play safe. We’re going to take some chances.’ I think Sonny as been very attentive on learning the other side of the puck.”
Tortorella declined to comment on the league’s decision not to suspend Wilson for the hit that dropped Wennberg, who did not return and is considered day-to-day. The injury came after Wennberg had scored his first postseason goal.
“It’s a big loss up the middle, especially for our line,” Columbus forward Thomas Vanek said. “I think we were going pretty well, and I thought his game was going well, too. He scored a big goal for us. … It’s tough to lose him, but it’s part of the game. You’re going to lose guys. Some other guys have to step up.”
That could be Milano. He’ll be playing in just his second career playoff game Sunday night.
“My role has definitely increased. As the season went on, it increased more and more,” he said. “I just keep expecting more of myself every game.”
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