At that time, with 18,506 people wearing red pulling their knees to their chests and their hair from their heads, it doesn’t matter the number of zeros on a player’s contract, or the number of years he’ll be here, or whether that deal will look smart or foolish in, say, 2023. At that moment, it only matters that, with the puck sliding toward him, T.J. Oshie could slap viciously at it, time it like a metronome and watch it finally — mercifully — rip into the back of the net.
Oshie’s goal wasn’t the only piece of a complete team victory for the Washington Capitals on Monday night at unhinged Capital One Arena. Credit for the 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals could be shared among the 19 men who took the ice: Braden Holtby for posting his first shutout of the season when it was needed most, Chandler Stephenson for hustling to create the insurance goal, Devante Smith-Pelly for scoring that goal and the lot of them for throwing their bodies around with such abandon that it’s a wonder they’ll be able to play Game 7 on Wednesday in Tampa.
But it says here that we would be writing a different story had Oshie not scored when he scored. The Capitals needed a veteran to cut what was going to be considerable tension. They needed to convert on what felt like their only power play in a week.
They needed someone who was signed for moments like this to come through in a moment like this.
“He does so many good things for us,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “A lot of things that are noticed, a lot of things that aren’t noticed.”
Notice that play, the goal. The Capitals had a flight to Tampa because of it. That Oshie added the empty-netter to ice it seemed appropriate, too.
It’s dangerous, in these endeavors, to read into words and body language, assigning meaning to any of it.
Oh, heck. There will be a Game 7. Let’s read into some words and body language and assign some meaning.
At the Capitals’ morning skate Monday, Oshie seemed almost buoyant. Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals’ captain and generational star, was asked whether this would be the biggest game of his career, and he said, “Probably.” Oshie, who is like Ovechkin in that he has a decade in this league but is only now reaching the conference finals, was asked the same question.
“I don’t see how it couldn’t be,” Oshie said. He smiled with every word.
It is that response, with this situation afoot, for which he was signed. His eyes were bright and wide. It was 11 a.m. He wanted the puck dropped right then and there.
Now, the deal Oshie signed was for eight years and $46 million, and when Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan announced it last summer, he was mocked. Too many years for too much money for a player who was set to turn 31 in December and was coming off his only 30-goal season. Oshie’s contract was a data point for critics who dissected Washington’s offseason and found — yuck — mouse guts spread across the lab table.
But MacLellan was adamant that the Capitals not only wanted Oshie, they needed Oshie.
“He’s a big part of our culture,” MacLellan told me last summer, at the height of the criticism. “He drives the team.”
And then, for stretches of the season, Oshie didn’t drive anything — his team, himself, his stats. In December, he missed time with a concussion — an unsettling circumstance for a player who had suffered them before. When he returned, the problems didn’t diminish. They worsened. Not with his health, but with his game.
He. Could. Not. Score.
“At times, it was frustrating,” Oshie said Monday night. “I tried my best not to show it.”
For 33 games, a span from December to March, Oshie managed one goal. One lousy goal. But when he walked in the dressing room, he covered it up.
“To be honest with you,” Orpik said, “I don’t even think the guys were aware of it.”
Still, add it up at the end of the year, and Oshie had never endured a season in which he played at least 60 games and produced fewer goals (18) or fewer points (47).
Seven more years of this?
Yet, bizarrely, when he couldn’t score, he contributed an important element for a team that was still coming together.
“T.J. showed — especially the young guys — how you handle yourself,” Holtby said. “You still come to the rink being a leader, bringing that energy, working as hard as anyone in practice. . . . Good players find a way to have an effect on the game, no matter if they’re scoring or not, and I think that’s why he’s one of our main leaders.”
The goal he scored Monday, it’s the kind that comes from one of your main leaders. The Capitals were on the power play. Finally. They had gone nearly six periods — two full games — without one.
The game was scoreless. The crowd was in the position it seems to occupy eternally when the Capitals don’t have a lead in a playoff game — on the very edge. So there was a sense when Tampa Bay’s Braydon Coburn was sent off for hooking with six minutes and change remaining in the second, Washington had to take advantage. Heading to the third period, tied, having not beaten increasingly impenetrable Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy? Pass the Tums.
Center Nicklas Backstrom found his familiar spot, quarterbacking from the right circle, setting things up from the half-wall. It still defies logic that the Capitals won the first two games of this series — on the road — without Backstrom, who was out with a hand injury. His patience in such situations is stunning, as if he’s sitting with coffee and a newspaper, mulling over how to while away an afternoon.
But Backstrom is always thinking, thinking, thinking.
“For me,” Oshie said, “it’s just a matter of a couple feet here and there to try to find that soft area.”
Backstrom saw Oshie find a little mushy spot. But Tampa Bay didn’t get to this point because it’s easily exposed.
“It’s all about: Try to look somewhere else,” Backstrom said, “and pass it the other way.”
So he looked away. He passed it to Oshie. And Oshie ripped.
Finally, Vasilevskiy had been beaten. First, the arena exploded. Finally, the arena breathed.
We don’t know what lies ahead, not for any of us. Not on Wednesday night in Game 7. Not for Oshie next season, nor for the remainder of his contract.
What we do know is that, when not a single Capital had broken through and new pain seemed around the corner, T.J. Oshie responded to the biggest game of his career with the biggest goal of his career. The season lives on because of it.