Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie lies on the ice after a hit by Hurricanes left wing Warren Foegele. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

Late in February, the Washington Capitals were drilling the Ottawa Senators, up by five goals in the third period, just needing the clock to wind down to zeros. What could you learn in the final minutes of such a blowout? When it pertains to T.J. Oshie, plenty.

Oshie already had two goals that night, and from behind the bench, Coach Todd Reirden twice asked if Oshie wanted to play wing on a different line, trying to get him more ice time, trying to get him a hat trick. Oshie declined. “No, I’m good,” he said.

But when he took a regular shift late in that third period, there he was busting his rear to backcheck. Win by five or win by four, it makes no difference — unless you’re trying to establish how your entire organization should play.

“That’s why he’s T.J. Oshie,” Reirden said that night. “That’s why we need him on our team. That’s why we needed this player to come to our organization. He is team to the bitter end.”

For some portion of what remains in the Capitals’ season — two games or two months or somewhere in between — Oshie’s team will have to get along without Oshie. This is no small matter. He is here because of his on-ice ability, sure, a reliable, versatile top-six forward who has averaged 25 goals and 52 points in his four seasons in Washington. More than that, though, Oshie arrived here — and was signed to stay here through 2024-25 — because of his off-ice ability.

Thursday night, in the Capitals’ 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes that evened this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at two games apiece, Oshie was hit from behind by Carolina’s Warren Foegele. Oshie was slow to get up, did not return, and the Caps, as of Friday, had no update on when or if he might be back.

It looked serious. It’s probably serious. And any significant amount of time without Oshie, that’s automatically serious.

“He’s certainly, I feel, one of the top leaders in the entire league,” Reirden said Friday.

When General Manager Brian MacLellan traded for Oshie before the 2015-16 season, he did so not only because the Caps needed some scoring to back up big dogs Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but because the locker room needed a culture change. Since his arrival, he always has been part of the solution, never part of the problem. That hasn’t always been the case with Washington’s most important players.

When the Caps are down, Oshie’s the most likely person in the room to say, “Let’s go.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “Let’s [expletive!] go!” He may not be the disciplined taskmaster that veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik is, pointing out who’s doing things wrong and what has to change. But he is, in some ways, the spirit of the Capitals, what goaltender Braden Holtby called a “heart-and-soul guy.”

Now, for however long Oshie’s out — which is almost certainly the rest of this series, at least — the Caps must find their heart and soul elsewhere. Given Carolina has the momentum and easily could be up three games to one, that’s not ideal.

“You can go on a lot of different ways with the type of person that T.J. Oshie is, and not having him around your players is not great,” Reirden said. “That loss will be felt.”

Absolutely. But let’s get a couple things out of the way: I realize Ovechkin called Foegele’s hit a “dirty play,” and that Reirden spent time late Thursday night explaining how Oshie was a “defenseless player that was quite a distance from the boards,” adding that it was a “very dangerous play.” Carolina Coach Rod Brind’Amour, not shockingly, said Oshie “was just not ready for the hit.”

Put the debate aside, and concentrate instead on what’s left of the series — and, if the Caps aren’t careful, the season. So often in the past, Washington’s fan base and front office have been left defending its own for just such a borderline hit. Hello, Tom Wilson.

Wilson is the Washington forward who usually finds himself defending himself after delivering a hit along the lines of Foegele’s. One of those hits, on Pittsburgh rookie Zach Aston-Reese, left Wilson suspended for three games in the Caps’ second-round series against the Pens last year. In the first game Wilson missed, the Capitals didn’t seem at all themselves, and lost. But what happened next? They dominated in Game 5, then finally vanquished the Pens with Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal at Pittsburgh. They won that final game, too, without the seemingly indispensable Backstrom, out because of a hand injury.

The point: The Capitals have withstood a loss like Oshie’s — and, arguably, worse — and advanced anyway.

“There’s a void there, for sure,” Reirden said. “I’m not going to downplay that. And to me, it’s up to who steps up and takes advantage of that opportunity.”

This could be a personal note to Kuznetsov, who should feel free to — oh, I don’t know — show up for Saturday’s Game 5. The player who led last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs in points has no goals against Carolina. Oshie’s loss is, on paper, an opportunity for the recently recalled Devante Smith-Pelly, formerly a postseason hero who goes from the minors into the lineup. But more obviously, it should be for an established star to play the role of established star.

That’s what T.J. Oshie would do in this situation. If the Caps were up, he’d be the one to play the puck wide, to keep possession, to do the right thing. If the Caps were down, he’d be the one to say, “Let’s [expletive!] go!”

“This is a teammate,” Reirden said that night in February, when a couple of little things revealed such a huge percentage of Oshie’s worth. “This is a leader. This is a Washington Capital.”

Being a Washington Capital, at the moment, means being a Stanley Cup champion. For the Capitals to even sniff retaining that title — or even to play into May — they’ll have to have someone act like T.J. Oshie in his absence.

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