In an ideal setup, T.J. Oshie wouldn’t be playing center. He’s a winger by trade — and a good one at that — but the Washington Capitals have a hole, and Oshie is a do-it-all player who’s shown the aptitude to play anywhere across the forward line.
That’s what coach Peter Laviolette has come to expect from the 34-year-old. He moved Oshie to center when Washington was in an injury pinch in January. Now in the first round of the playoffs, the Capitals are there again, calling on Oshie to play out of position for the good of the team.
And when the Capitals call, Oshie answers.
“T.J. is: ‘Whatever you ask, whatever it takes,’” Laviolette said. “There is never a ‘Yeah, but’ or ‘I can’t’ or ‘Are you sure?’ It’s always: ‘Yep, no problem.’ It’s not his position. It’s not probably where he feels the most comfortable. But he’s able to adjust and adapt.”
Oshie first shifted to center for the Capitals on Jan. 28, filling in because Evgeny Kuznetsov, Brian Pinho and Lars Eller were all unavailable. He said “it’s definitely been a while” since he last played the position, but Oshie understands the responsibilities attached.
That’s because he’s a self-described “student of the game,” not only knowing his own assignments but tracking the assignments of his teammates, too.
“I feel like I’ve always paid attention to what other guys are supposed to do in certain situations,” Oshie said. “D might get a little bit iffy; I might get lost a little bit there. But for the most part, I know what their jobs are on every situation on the ice.”
Take Saturday night, for example. Laviolette started Oshie as a center in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins. He and winger Tom Wilson led a charge through the neutral zone, and Oshie played the give-and-go pass back to Wilson that led to the Capitals’ opening goal.
But later, once the game was in overtime, Laviolette shifted Oshie to left wing as the coach shortened his rotation. And Oshie’s slapshot from the blue line deflected off center Nic Dowd and into the net, securing the 3-2 win.
“To be able to jump positions inside the lineup, inside a game, and have your mind switch to the systematic part of it, says a lot about his hockey IQ,” Laviolette said.
It also says a lot about Oshie’s versatility and amenability. He could play center again Wednesday for Game 3 because the statuses of Eller and Kuznetsov are up in the air — Kuznetsov is working his way back from the coronavirus protocol list and Eller suffered a lower-body injury Monday night and is day-to-day.
Oshie has performed well in that role, though, with three points in the first two games. He scored the Capitals’ first goal Monday night, deflecting in a shot from Alex Ovechkin on the power play early in the 4-3 overtime loss that leveled the series at one game. While Oshie — and the rest of Washington’s centers — have struggled in the faceoff circle overall, he has otherwise slid in seamlessly as a center.
“For him, it’s probably a challenge,” winger Anthony Mantha said. “But it looks pretty natural to us.”
With the rash of absences at center, Oshie would be needed to fill in that spot regardless of his proficiency. But Oshie’s ability to play across the forward line — and play well in each role — has allowed the Capitals to paper over cracks in the lineup.
Those cracks could’ve sunk the ship, earlier in the season and especially in the playoffs. Oshie, though, is keeping the team afloat.
“He does it without ever questioning or without ever saying, ‘I’d rather be a winger,’” Laviolette said. “He’s doing it for the good of the team, and that’s the ultimate teammate.”