LOS ANGELES — The origin of how T.J. Oshie became one of the NHL’s most versatile forwards has its roots in football, not hockey. He was a running back, the smallest kid on the team, so his coach told him to hit before he got hit himself. And as Oshie eventually took his talents to the ice, still the smallest kid, he applied that same philosophy.
“Anytime it’s a competition, it’s a one-on-one battle. A hit to me is like a one-on-one battle; it’s fun trying to win those, especially when the guy is bigger,” Oshie said.
That competitive spirit has fueled Oshie to push every aspect of his game. He’s gifted enough offensively to belong in the Washington Capitals’ top-six forward corps, typically stationed beside center Nicklas Backstrom, but his bruising style is surprising for someone of his skill and size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds. He’s right in the middle of the Capitals’ top power play, tasked with fighting for position directly in front of the net. He’s also used as a shutdown forward and a penalty killer.
Above all else, he often sets the tone for a Washington team that would like to play with the sort of energy Oshie always seems to radiate. After a concussion derailed him earlier in the season — he missed 11 games — Oshie has seven goals and 13 assists in the Capitals’ past 19 games. With 18 goals in 49 games, he has already matched his 74-game total from last season. He’s also fourth on the team with 107 hits.
“He plays five-on-six for us at the end [of games], and he’s dependable because he can take faceoffs,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “His hockey sense is at a very elite level. He’s willing to block shots. His wall play is excellent. And then, when we need a goal, he’s on the ice. With him, he’s someone you can use in all situations, and you have to just pick and choose the right ones to try to keep his ice time at a manageable level so he can still be effective.”
As the league has trended more toward speed and puck-moving, the Capitals have similarly moved in that direction with their roster construction, but Washington won the Stanley Cup last season in part because of a bruising style that wore opponents down. Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik get the most attention for their hitting because they’re the biggest bodies, but it’s a tool for when Oshie wants to spark the Capitals’ bench, especially early in periods or after the team allows a goal.
But it can be to his detriment. The concussion Oshie suffered in December was the fifth documented one of his career, and he had another injury scare Sunday when he left the Capitals’ loss at Anaheim in the second period with an upper-body injury. It wasn’t another concussion, and he was in the lineup for the Capitals’ win at the Los Angeles Kings the next night, but Oshie’s hard play naturally makes him more susceptible.
“If I’m not going to play my style of hockey, I might as well not be playing,” he said. “When I’m out there, the last thing I’m thinking about is if I’m going to get hurt or if I’m going to get another concussion. If it happens, it happens, but if I start thinking like that, I don’t think hockey would be too fun if you’re skating around scared.”
In Oshie’s first 12 games after his most recent concussion, he had two goals with no assists, but he said he started moving his feet more, especially coming out of the bye week to start the month. His 13 even-strength goals this year have already eclipsed the nine he scored last season. But ask other Capitals players about Oshie and they’ll gush about the enthusiasm with which he’s always playing before ever getting to his production. Oshie treats loose-puck and board battles in the same way he sees a hit — as a one-on-one contest he wants to win.
“You know he’s never going to get outworked, and that’s infectious throughout our lineup,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
“For kind of a smaller guy — I’d say he’s smaller than average in the NHL — he’s pretty strong on his skates and competitive,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He just competes so hard. He never quits on a play, never quits on a puck. Those kind of efforts are contagious, and we’re going to need more and more of that as we go forward here.”
Carolina Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, formerly with the Capitals, once described Oshie as a “little pit bull” who “hits like a truck and can stickhandle through a phone booth.” For a Washington team that has set a goal of winning a second straight championship, it’s no surprise that the player who seems to love winning most of all often leads the way.
“I’ve always just been a really competitive kid,” Oshie said. “I always wanted to try to be the best at everything, whether that was being a 200-foot forward, being the best defensive forward on the team, being the best offensive forward on the team. Obviously, I’m probably not either of those, on this team especially, but I do try to strive to be good in all areas.”