COLUMBUS, Ohio — T.J. Oshie clearly is playing hurt. It doesn’t mean he’s not playing well.
Oshie has been missing Washington Capitals’ practices and morning skates during this first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Capitals say he’s been kept off the ice for “maintenance,” and he missed two of the last three regular-season games because of an undisclosed “lower-body” injury. But playing through an ailment is a springtime tradition in the NHL, and Oshie seems to be managing it relatively well. He’s scored two goals through the first four games of the series, tied at two games apiece after Washington’s 4-1 win on Thursday.
“Osh is a hockey player,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Obviously, he brings energy and he does all of those things, but in simplest terms, he loves playing. He enjoys being around the guys all of the time. He enjoys the battles, he enjoys the competition, and he does it with a smile on his face, you know? You’re nicked up or you’re sore, he just keeps battling through. He’s old school, and he’s a hockey player. We’re managing with him. You get into these playoffs, and you just try to make sure that you do what’s best for you, if you need to skate or not. You do what’s best for yourself.”
Washington’s top-six forward corps has struggled to get five-on-five this series, and the second line with Oshie and center Nicklas Backstrom has yet to score at even strength. But the Capitals’ power play now has seven goals in four games, and with the Blue Jackets devoting a lot of their attention to captain Alex Ovechkin in those situations, Oshie has scored twice. In Game 2, his power-play goal tied the game to force overtime, where Washington eventually lost, 5-4. In Thursday night’s Game 4, Oshie fought for space in front of the net, knocking a rebound past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to lift the Capitals to a 2-0 lead.
But it was what came next that stood out most to goaltender Braden Holtby. With Washington protecting its third-period lead, Oshie was one of the most active players on the ice, and after the Capitals had squandered leads in each of the first three games, they managed the puck better late in Game 4.
“I think that all started from T.J. Oshie,” Holtby said. “He took the game over a couple of those shifts just hounding the puck, killing those minutes. Those are the things he does that he doesn’t get credit for to create wins. That’s the kind of leader he is, and everyone else followed after that.”
Said Oshie: “I think you’ve just got to enjoy the competition in playoffs. I think it’s the most fun part of our sport is when everyone’s giving their best and it’s you versus another guy. Sometimes, it’s not always the skill. It’s just the will to win a battle, and I don’t know, for some reason, that gets me going. That gets me excited. When I play that way, I hope it can be somewhat of an inspiration to some of the younger guys or just even the other guys that are able to see it. So, it means a lot that Holts noticed, but we’ve still got a long ways to go, and I’ve got a lot more in me to show out there and to play that similar style.”
Oshie appeared labored on several shifts, but he never missed one, finishing with 15:11 of ice time and three shots on goal. This season has been a difficult one for him: He missed six games with the fourth documented concussion of his career, and he struggled to find his scoring touch for months after that. Despite a stretch of 33 games in which he scored just one goal, he finished with 18 on the year, a decline from the career-high 33 he scored last season. The Capitals were most encouraged by how he ended the season: six goals and five assists in his last 11 games.
After an injury derailed his season, he was determined not to let another one affect him in the playoffs.
“I think everyone’s battling something,” Oshie said, “but I can tell you I’m not going to get any better in a pregame skate or a practice in between two playoff games, especially when they’re going into OT a lot. Maybe we can blame it on me getting a little older and not being an animal like [center Jay Beagle], but no, just getting a little extra rest.”
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