A couple of weeks ago, Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy had a fresh set of stitches in his lower lip. They’re gone now. Taking their place are a couple of scrapes that will probably be followed by a bruise on his right cheek. That’s what happens when you take a puck to the face from close range.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without scars, without stitches of some sort,” Caps goaltender Braden Holtby said.
To Oleksy, they’re beauty marks.
“I’m always beat up. About 90 percent of the season, I usually look like I got hit by a car,” Oleksy said. “The other 10 percent is the offseason.”
It’s not the offseason yet, so Oleksy probably has a few more pucks coming to the face. Oleksy and the Caps opened the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday night with 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers at Verizon Center. As he’s done since he joined the team March 5, Oleksy provided the Caps with a lot of steady defense.
For good measure, he threw maybe the best pass of the season.
“I didn’t know he had that club in his bag,” teammate Eric Fehr said afterward.
During the course of a single hockey game, the puck may get passed eleventy billion times. Or more. That one can stand out so much says a lot about its quality. You’d imagine a breath-taker of a pass might come from assist masters Mike Ribeiro or Nicklas Backstrom, or maybe superstar Alex Ovechkin.
Nope. It came from a rookie who would never have guessed in January that he’d be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in May.
Late in the second period, with the score tied at 1, the Caps finished killing off an odd penalty. They were down two men for almost a minute, down one for another minute. It was time to take control of the game.
Oleksy glanced up ice and saw teammate Marcus Johansson behind the defense. Two Rangers were in front of him, separated by only a couple of feet. It was like one of those between-period games they sometimes play, where a fan has to shoot the puck into a small opening to win a car.
The puck zipped between the Rangers and onto Johansson’s stick. Only 27 seconds after the penalty kills, Johansson stuffed it past Henrik Lundqvist and the Caps had a 2-1 lead. Jason Chimera scored 47 seconds later.
Martin Erat called Oleksy’s assist “a sick pass.” That means good, for you fellow old-timers. Johansson called it “unbelievable.”
“At first, I didn’t even think he was going to try and make the play,” Johansson added. “When he did, I knew it was going to get there. I told him afterward it was a hell of a pass.
“You don’t want to miss on a chance like that. It was a great play and I’m really thankful for that pass.”
Oleksy, the ultimate grinder, saw it as just another play he needed to make. The beauty, he said, came on the other end.
“(Johansson) did a great job finding the lane there and giving me the opportunity to make that pass. They kind of lost him there for a second,” Oleksy said. “He gave me the chance and it was him that finished. I saw him there, saw someone coming across with his stick reaching out. That’s why I zipped it pretty hard and he did a great job handling it and taking it in for the goal.”
As The Times’ Stephen Whyno reported Monday, Oleksy is one of the more unlikely stories in the NHL this season. There was a good bit of a “who” quality about him when he first joined the Caps. His contributions, though, can’t be overstated.
“When he first got called up, he was probably our best D man for the first 8-10 games, playing phenomenal,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s definitely earned his spot right now. The guys have confidence in him when he’s on the ice.”
Said Johansson: “He’s been unbelievable since he got here. He does anything for the team. He hits guys. He makes plays.”
He’s earned his stripes in a sport where work ethic means a lot.
“He’s a good story,” Chimera said. “He’s a very humble kid, which is nice. Good things happen to good people, which he is. It couldn’t happen to a better guy.”
Oleksy’s picture isn’t on his page on the Capitals’ website. That’s how much he was counted on to be a factor when the season started (though you’d think they could load one up as he comes up on two months with the club). A minor-league journeyman, he started the season with the Hershey Bears of the AHL. That he’ll finish it with the Caps, as a key member of the Caps, still seems a little amazing to him.
“It’s great to contribute,” he said. “It’s great to still be here.”