Whether he becomes a top-six NHL defenseman or a player who shuttles between the big leagues and the minors, Tyler Sloan is going to remember Monday night until he hangs up his skates.
The experience was that surreal, the excitement that unreal.
A defenseman for the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears on Saturday, Sloan was a blueliner for the Washington Capitals just 48 hours later, playing more than 16 minutes in the Caps’ thrilling 4-3 win against Pittsburgh in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Subbing for the injured John Erskine, Sloan was the choice over Karl Alzner and became another surprising success story during the Caps’ postseason, playing calmly in his Stanley Cup playoff debut.
“No nerves for him,” said defenseman Brian Pothier, who paired with Sloan. “I don’t think he made a mistake - even on the penalty kill, which is tough with that much firepower coming at you. He was poised and did all the right things.”
Sloan, 28, played 26 games for the Caps during the regular season, his first in a pro career that started in 2001 and included stints with Syracuse, Dayton, Las Vegas, Manitoba and, since late in the 2005-06 season, Hershey.
When Erskine couldn’t practice Sunday, the Caps called Hershey and told Sloan and Alzner to sit out the team’s Calder Cup playoff game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. By 10 p.m. Sunday, they were in Northern Virginia. Twenty-four hours later, Sloan was standing barefoot in the Caps’ locker room, reliving a career highlight.
“It was awesome,” said Sloan, who posted an assist on David Steckel’s second-period goal. “I managed to keep my head in the game, and the more ice time I got, the better I felt.”
Just as Pothier replaced an injured Jeff Schultz and Simeon Varlamov replaced an ineffective Jose Theodore during the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, Sloan more than did his part after being thrown into the caldron.
“He was great,” Pothier said. “He’s a really good skater and a big body and a real physical guy. Just smooth out there.”
Said Steckel: “Rock solid.”
Sloan said the nerves began to mount during the pregame meal because he still didn’t know whether he would be in the lineup.
“They settled down probably on the drive here, and once I got in here and got dressed and taped the sticks,” he said. “When the game started, I felt good.”
Alzner took part in the pregame warmup but knew he would be scratched once he arrived at the arena. He kept busy during the game, watching from the weight room (during his workout), training room (while getting dressed), family lounge (with his girlfriend) and the Zamboni gate (“just to actually see how loud it was,” he said).
“I felt nervous for myself just watching the game but definitely for him because he’s my ‘D’ partner and I want him to play well and do well for the team,” Alzner said of Sloan. “As soon as he got his first few shifts in, it became easier. I’m really happy for him. I can’t wait to talk to him.”
Topic A is sure to be Sloan’s assist. The puck dribbled out to him at the blue line, and using a pick by Brooks Laich, he skated free and fired a wrist shot that hit traffic and went right to Steckel, whose goal tied the score at 2-2.
In the third period, Sloan played more than eight minutes, including a stint on the penalty kill - high praise for a guy who wasn’t here for the first eight playoff games.
As a player who was recalled (and sent down) five times during the regular season, Sloan knows nothing is certain for Wednesday’s Game 3. He could be in the lineup, or he could be back in Hershey.
Regardless, he gives the Caps another reliable option if called upon again.
“[Coach Bruce Boudreau] told me before the game to keep it simple, and that’s my game - I’m not a fancy player,” he said. “They believed in me and gave me an opportunity, and when they do that, I feel confident in my game.”