By the end of what had been a very long night, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie had two stitches at the side of his left eye and a wide smile plastered on his face. When he was helped to the locker room with 16:33 left in the game, his teammates assumed he wouldn’t be back on the ice for the rest of the night. He already had survived one injury earlier in the evening, but two was probably too much.
Oshie was determined to return, hopping on a stationary bike, answering questions and then passing a balance test. He successfully got through the concussion protocol and made his way back to the bench with less than four minutes left in the game.
“You get a little fired up when you’re not allowed to be out there and you’ve got to watch your teammates,” Oshie said. “I didn’t see it on TV, but all the guys that weren’t playing were in a part of the training room, and when I came out, they said that Pittsburgh was taking it to us and [goaltender Braden Holtby] was standing on his head.”
Collecting a pass from defenseman John Carlson in the slot, Oshie scored the go-ahead goal with 1:14 left in regulation to deliver the Capitals a 2-1 win over the Penguins. Washington has won two games in a row for the first time this season.
“You never want to see a teammate in that situation, but the term ‘warrior’ is brought up, and that’s T.J. Oshie to a tee,” Holtby said. “The way our game was going, once he came back, that gave us life. Guys like him, leaders like him, they know when to show up. You can tell once he stepped back on the ice that he had a mission to score and give it to them that way.”
Less than five minutes into the game, Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta clipped Oshie in the face with a high stick with the blade going under Oshie’s visor and catching him near the eye. He missed the rest of the period and got two stitches before returning for the start of the second period.
Then with the game tied at 1 to start the third period, Capitals center Travis Boyd was called for holding, and on the ensuing power play, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin was called for an illegal check to the head of Oshie when his shoulder collided with Oshie and knocked him to the ground. Malkin was ejected, and Oshie had to be helped off the ice and to the locker room.
“He maybe thought I was coming to hit him, and so he threw the reverse shoulder out there, which I try to do that all the time,” Oshie said. “I did it at least once tonight. I just wasn’t expecting it being on the [penalty kill]. You don’t typically go for hits. He caught me there, and it is what it is. I passed my concussion test, went out and won the game. We’re feeling good in here.”
Though the NHL Department of Player Safety will closely examine the hit, the early indication is that it won’t lead to supplemental discipline for Malkin because he appeared to be bracing for impact from Oshie.
“That’s definitely a blow to the head,” Washington Coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s why we had to have T.J. leave and go through a concussion protocol. Those are things we’re trying to remove from the game. . . . We’re just really fortunate that it wasn’t something that was more serious and he was able to come back.”
Malkin was assessed a major penalty, so the Capitals had nearly four minutes of power-play time. But they weren’t able to capitalize, and after the game, Holtby said poor ice conditions might have played a role in that. Though Washington lost momentum from the failed power play, it got it back from Oshie’s return.
“He had some fresh legs,” Carlson said. “Both teams were kind of wearing each other down at that point. You could tell he was extra fresh, and he was able to make something out of nothing, really. . . . He was on the wall. It’s probably one of the fastest I think I’ve seen him skate, around the top of the circle there, and I just tried to make a play to him. And there was enough traffic in front that the goalie couldn’t really see where I was going with it.”
Because it was the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, it started as Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby, the two captains and biggest stars of their generation, scoring the first two goals of the game. Then it became a goaltending duel with Holtby and Pittsburgh’s Casey DeSmith keeping the score knotted at 1. Holtby won that matchup with his best performance in what has been a rocky start to the season for him, saving a whopping 41 shots.
Just like his teammates, Holtby had an uneven start to the season with moments of brilliance and also some costly blunders. Entering the game, he had a 3.62 goals against average and an .888 save percentage. On Wednesday night, he caught a few breaks with several Penguins shots bouncing off the goal posts, but he looked poised as he stopped 25 shots through the first 40 minutes as the Capitals again had some sloppy moments in front of him.
He continued to buy them time in the third period until Oshie returned and made the considerable beating he took all night worth it.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had one like that,” Oshie said. “But it was nice to get back out there both times. I have to throw a shout-out to the training staff and the doctors both times. They did a good job making sure I was okay, and I probably would’ve came out a lot sooner, but they wanted to be 100 percent. Thanks to them.”