For the second time in four games, the Washington Capitals found themselves shorthanded on the blue line.
Early in the first period of last Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Tomas Kundratek suffered a right leg injury, forcing the Capitals' already patchwork defense to cope without yet another member.
The five remaining defensemen performed admirably, allowing Washington to erase an early 2-0 deficit en route to a 3-2 victory. After the game, head coach Adam Oates praised the valiant effort of his defensive corps, but singled out one player in particular.
"Steven Oleksy played almost 30 minutes," he said. "That's incredible. Really proud of them all."
When asked if he ever expected that kind of performance -- a team-high 27:55 of ice time -- out of the 27-year-old Oleksy, Oates was honest.
"I don't think anybody did," he admitted.
Well, maybe not anybody.
"It’s definitely something I knew I could do," Oleksy said earlier this week before the Capitals embarked on a four-game road trip. "But to find somebody else that believed that, it’s a great feeling."
When Washington signed Oleksy to a three-year contract and subsequently recalled him from AHL Hershey on March 4 after Mike Green aggravated his nagging groin injury, the move was initially met with some confusion.
On the surface, here was an undrafted defenseman that had bounced around the East Coast, International and American Leagues for four years before signing with the Bears in July 2012. And even then, he wasn't even in Hershey's opening-night lineup in January.
Yet Oleksy has made a pretty seamless transition into Washington's lineup. Through his first nine NHL games, Oleksy has averaged 19:28 of ice time per game for an injury-ravaged blue line that has used a league-high 12 defensemen in just 29 games.
He's led the Capitals in ice time on three separate occasions, scored one goal, tallied three assists, thrown 24 hits, blocked 23 shots and recorded one knockout.
"Where he's come to, the minutes he's playing, the decisions he's making out there, handling the physical play and the speed, he's done great," Oates said after last week's game.
A major reason for Oleksy's easy transition to the NHL is the strong hockey base in his home state of Michigan.
During the summer, Oleksy met Hockey Hall-of-Famer and former Detroit Red Wing center Igor Larionov through a mutual friend, and began training with him both on and off the ice.
When Larionov left for a weeklong trip to Russia, he arranged for his training group to skate with the Red Wings. Oleksy participated in informal workouts with them until he left for the start of Hershey's training camp in late September -- skating alongside established veterans like Todd Bertuzzi, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
"That was a big step for me, knowing that I could play with those guys and compete and it kind of gave me a little feel for it, too," Oleksy said. "Granted, it was summer hockey, but playing with those guys, that really proved to me that I could hang in there with them."
Oleksy's seasoning continued upon his arrival in Hershey. Oates -- who, like Larionov, is a Hall-of-Famer -- and assistant coach Calle Johansson were assisting the Bears while the NHL lockout put the start of the season on hold.
Oleksy picked his coaches' brains and focused on the little things. Oates -- as he's done with many of his players -- gave Oleksy advice on the curvature of his stick blade. Johansson improved Oleksy's positioning, particularly around the crease.
"Very few hockey players are surrounded by people who know the game like Oatesy and Calle and are so passionate about the game," Oleksy said. "I've learned a lot of little things that not a lot of people would pick up on [except for] them, being so passionate and studying the game so closely."
Last week, Oates called Oleksy a "sponge" when describing how willing the 27-year-old is to absorb any and all information that the coaching staff imparts.
There's no telling how long Oleksy will remain in Washington, but for now, he's just soaking it all in.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity," he said. "I'm going to take full advantage of it."
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