As the Capitals and New York Rangers prepare to meet for the third straight year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, experience is plentiful on both sides.
For the Capitals though, defensemen Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy are among the exceptions. Hillen and Oleksy make up Washington’s third defensive pairing, but have played a combined two NHL playoff games between them.
“You don't really know what to expect,” Oleksy said on the eve of his NHL postseason debut. “It's going to be faster, it's going to be more physical, which I think kind of helps me in my game... It's definitely something I'm looking forward to and it's just another challenge.”
Oleksy’s challenge since March 5 has been to make the most of his first career NHL call-up. Suffice to say, the 27-year-old has passed with flying colors.
Oleksy appeared in the final 28 games of the regular-season, finishing with a goal and nine points. He also provided the Capitals with a physical presence that teammates say makes his game ideal for this time of year.
“It’s a lot of guys banging and crashing,” defenseman John Erskine said of playoff hockey, “and he’s definitely suited for it. He plays that physical style and he doesn’t back down from anyone. Ever since he’s come up here, he hasn’t shown any nerves, he plays with confidence and he’s tough out there. He should be fine.”
Oleksy’s professional playoff experience consists of eight games with the Idaho Steelheads in the ECHL in 2010 and three games each with the Lake Erie Monsters and Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League in 2011 and 2012.
"Obviously it’s very exciting,” Oleksy said of making his NHL postseason debut Thursday. “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. To have an opportunity to actually be in them and to compete is awesome.”
Like Oleksy, Hillen has also taken advantage of his opportunities during the second half of the regular-season and is eager to prove his worth in the playoffs.
After suffering an upper-body injury on Opening Night that sidelined him for 25 games, Hillen returned March 16 and was a fixture on the Capitals blueline for the final 22 games of the season.
Hillen’s role with the Capitals down the stretch was a big difference compared to his being made a healthy scratch in 21 of the final 31 regular-season games last year with the Nashville Predators.
It took an injury to veteran defenseman Hal Gill before last year’s postseason for Hillen to draw into the Nashville lineup for Games 1 and 2 of the first round series against the Detroit Red Wings. Hillen saw limited minutes in both games and was then a healthy scratch for the remaining nine games of Nashville’s playoff run.
“I’m definitely more relaxed than I was last year,” Hillen said. “Last year I was pretty nervous, I had played sparingly throughout the second half of the season and I was kind of just thrown into the fire and I was a little nervous…
“This time I feel much more comfortable about my spot on the team and I feel much more comfortable with my game. I have the same nervousness and excitedness I guess, but I’m more relaxed about how we’re going to do.”
The Capitals’ coaching staff is in turn relaxed and confident when it comes to their third defensive pairing.
“Obviously the star players shine and they get a lot of ice-time in the playoffs,” said assistant coach Calle Johansson, “but really the engine is the third and fourth lines, and maybe the third defensive pairing... It’s always about the whole team and when everything is said and done, the third D pair or the guys that don’t get the most minutes, they could be the most important part of your team.”
Head coach Adam Oates agrees with Johansson that not only can Hillen and Oleksy have an impact on the series, but their potential success will provide a boost to the rest of the defensive unit.
“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,” Oates said. “You want balance. Everything trickles down. Obviously it'll help because the team can play better. If you can roll four lines and six D you're in a good situation.”