Heartbeat back down yet? Good. Breathe easy while you can. There could be five more exactly like this.
“I wouldn’t expect anything different the next couple games,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said.
If that’s the case, the only option is to greet the pressure with a wide smile and open arms. That’s what Oshie does, regardless of his personal circumstances — which are physically distracting and emotionally draining. He authored the play that created the game-winning goal in Game 1, and then he scored the Caps’ first goal Monday night by expertly and cleverly redirecting Alex Ovechkin’s shot in front. He is anywhere and everywhere — just infectious.
Oshie is playing in these playoffs just weeks after his father, Tim, known to one and all as “Coach” Oshie, passed away. He is playing in these playoffs after missing the regular season finale with some sort of leg injury after a nasty spill a game earlier. He is playing out of position, not because this is a time for experimentation but because this is what his team needs.
What else could you want from someone playing hockey in May than someone who yearns for pressure, thrives on anxiety and sacrifices his individual comfort for the betterment of the whole?
“Every shift, every puck, every play, every shot is important — could be something that decides the game,” Oshie said.
That feels particularly true in this series against Boston in which there has yet to be a two-goal lead. Oshie’s approach to his job not just at this time of year, but particularly at this time of year: Yes, sir.
“T.J. is: ‘Whatever you ask, whatever it takes,’” Laviolette said. “There is never a ‘Yeah, but’ or ‘I can’t’ or ‘Are you sure?’ It’s always: ‘Yep. No problem.’”
That’s the player Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan traded for after his first year on the job. Remember that there was some anxiety in these parts that the Capitals parted with forward Troy Brouwer, a draft pick and goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley. There was some hand-wringing — okay, lots of hand-wringing — when MacLellan signed Oshie to an eight-year, $46 million extension that could keep him with the Capitals until he is 39. The griping that summer of 2017: Why trade skilled forward Marcus Johansson and not re-sign veteran leader Justin Williams but keep Oshie forever and ever?
“The decision becomes: Do we want Oshie or not?” MacLellan said that summer. “I don’t know what the stink is. Oshie, he’s a big part of our culture. He drives the team. We felt it was necessary. People like Williams at 36, but they don’t like Oshie at 36?”
Well, he’s only 34, so technically we don’t know yet. But, man, people like Oshie at 34. And they should.
Think about what he is doing in this series. For the entirety of his six seasons in Washington — not to mention the entirety of his 13-year NHL career — Oshie has played right wing. With the Caps, he has frequently slid in alongside Nicklas Backstrom opposite Ovechkin, one of the best seats in hockey. If not there, he has had Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center. He is in glamorous spots, but he often does the grimy work — digging pucks out and keeping them alive so the skilled players alongside him can benefit.
But thus far in the Boston series, Kuznetsov hasn’t appeared, out while on the covid-19 list. That leaves the Capitals short at center. That leaves Laviolette with a choice he couldn’t make with most players: moving Oshie all over the ice. For the most part, he has centered the third line between Daniel Sprong and Tom Wilson — but then things were further discombobulated when Lars Eller, trusted to center the second line in Kuznetsov’s absence, left with a lower-body injury.
Oshie is fine with being juggled When he fired the shot that was tipped by Nic Dowd and won Game 1 in overtime, he was on the ice at left wing.
“For him it looks like a challenge,” said Anthony Mantha, a lifelong winger. “But it looks pretty natural to us.”
It might look natural, but it is not normal. Not in a practice. Certainly not in a playoff game. Such versatility takes not only willingness. It takes knowledge and understanding of the responsibilities of all five skaters on the ice.
“ ‘D’ might get a little iffy,” Oshie said.
Or maybe not.
“He’s smart, a real smart player,” Laviolette said. “… To be able to jump positions inside the lineup, inside a game, and have your mind switch to the systematic part of it says a lot about his hockey IQ. He does it without ever questioning, without ever saying, ‘I’d rather be a winger.’ He’s doing it for the good of the team. That’s the ultimate teammate.”
Which makes his teammates want to go out of their way for him. When Oshie’s father died earlier this month, the Caps paid tribute by wearing “Coach” stickers on their helmets for the next game, which was in New York against the Rangers. Oshie recorded a hat trick — then cried on the bench.
The reality of Coach Oshie’s passing is sinking in more and more, Oshie said. But as the playoffs get going, Wilson told Oshie the Caps still wanted to wear the stickers. Oshie’s response is telling: You sure that’s all right?
“I wanted to make sure it was okay with all the guys and didn’t want to take anything away from guys being focused,” Oshie said. “It’s something they wanted to do. Obviously, I’m very happy and thankful and appreciative of the guys for keeping them on there for the run here.”
The run, right now, is young. But the pressure is here. The anxiety is real. And T.J. Oshie is here for all of it.