When Steve Oleksy made his Washington Capitals debut March 5, Braden Holtby asked the 27-year-old defenseman how nervous he was to play his first NHL game. Oleksy responded that he wasn’t nervous because he never thought he’d be in that position.
He’s taking the same tact in preparation for his first Stanley Cup playoff game Thursday night against the New York Rangers.
“You’ve got to ramp up the intensity, but at the end of the day you can’t start worrying about too much, and you just have to approach it like you would any other game,” Oleksy said. “I feel like I’ve been here long enough now where it’s another game.”
Oleksy played 28 games, scored a goal and added eight assists. He had a plus-9 rating, too and showed he can hang at this level.
“Solid D-man,” defense partner Jack Hillen said. “He just makes the simple play, I know where he’s going to be and he knows where I’m going to be. We know our job out there and that’s not to get scored on, we help chip in a little bit offensively and make good breakouts so we’re doing that and hopefully it continues in the playoffs.”
Hillen and Oleksy are the Caps’ third pair, but they could play a big role in the Rangers series and potentially beyond, even if they don’t chip in offensively.
“Every minute that they can play and help us is a minute that [John Carlson and Mike Green] and the other two guys get to rest, right?” coach Adam Oates said. “You want balance. Everything trickles down. Obviously it’ll help because the team can play better.”
Oleksy earned a contract and spot in the Caps’ lineup after emerging as one of the Hershey Bears’ best defensemen during the American Hockey League regular season. He has earned praise for keeping things simple, and it’s deserved: Oleksy is not the biggest or quickest player, but he doesn’t try to do too much.
That’s why his game could be well-suited for this time of year, when little mistakes get magnified.
“He’s played with confidence,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s not the most offensive guy, but you usually only see that great poise with those [offensive] guys and he seems to bring it every single night. He takes an extra second to make the right play and when he doesn’t have a play, he makes the simple play.”
Oleksy has watched plenty of NHL playoff games, so the excitement is there for making his debut.
“You dream about it for so long growing up playing street hockey, things like that, you always pretend you’re in the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” he said. “To have an opportunity to actually be in them and to compete is awesome.”
But Oates said the key to approaching a first playoff game is not getting “too emotional, too early.” If anything, Oleksy appeared to be downplaying his big night.
Maybe because, as he acknowledged, he doesn’t know exactly what to expect.
“It’s going to be faster, it’s going to be more physical, which I think that kind of helps me in my game,” Oleksy said. “I think you react instead of over thinking, which, as a player, that’s very important for me. It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to and it’s just another challenge.”