Capitals stay red hot, down Rangers in series opener

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Steve Oleksy will wear this scar as a badge of honour.

After the Washington Capitals pushed for a decisive 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers Thursday night before a raucous crowd at the Verizon Center, the fact a throng of media members were surrounding the locker of a minor-league journeyman was another not-so-subtle reminder that the Stanley Cup playoffs were on.

Game 2 goes Saturday afternoon.

Oleksy is a 27-year-old rookie who previously gutted it out in the minors, crafting a resume that includes stops with the Port Huron Icehawks of the International Hockey League, the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL and the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.

There’s no shame in working your way up the ranks.

In fact, the long road Oleksy has taken makes him appreciate the fact he’s playing in the NHL after years of riding the buses and wondering if he’ll ever get the opportunity.

So it was no surprise that the rugged blueliner was willing to drop to his knees and block a Derick Brassard shot with his jaw as the Rangers were enjoying a power play late in the second period. Making those types of sacrifices is simply part of the gig, something that is magnified once the postseason begins.

“It caught me pretty flush, but luckily the damage isn’t worse,” said Oleksy, who had a goal and eight assists in 28 games during the regular season. “I wasn’t sure how bad it was. I figured I was in for about 20 stitches.

“It’s one of those things, it happens in the sport of hockey. You take it and were you respond from it. That’s what it takes to win.”

When asked if his modelling career might be in jeopardy, Oleksy showed his sense of humour.

“That’s been gone a long time ago my friend,” said Oleksy. “The way I cut and bruise, I waved bye-bye to that. I don’t think I ever had a future in that.”

Oleksy felt some discomfort after the game and figures to be sore in the morning, but his memory of his first Stanley Cup playoff game will include setting up Marcus Johansson for the winning goal.

This was no run-of-the-mill feed either, but one that flew through two zones and landed right on the tape of Johansson, who stayed onside before going in and beating Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

“Great pass,” said Capitals coach Adam Oates, who knows a thing or two about playmaking.

Capitals winger Troy Brouwer was also impressed.

“I was on the bench. I watched it sauce and float the whole way,” said Brouwer “It was a great pass, a good heads-up play. We’re trying to have quick transition in the neutral zone.”

Most of Oleksy’s teammates weren’t surprised to see him take a puck in the face and not miss a beat.

“He’s worked hard, he’s earned where he is right now. When he first got called up, he was probably our best D-man for the first eight or 10 games and playing phenomenal for us. He’s earned his spot, he’s earning his ice time. The guys have confidence when he’s on the ice.

“He’s had quite a few stitches with high sticks, fights, battling hard. He wants to stay here and he wants to make a name for himself. He’s doing that this season.”

Although the Capitals got strong goaltending from Braden Holtby, Alex Oveckin scored an important goal that tied the game and Jason Chimera provided some insurance, it’s hard to believe anyone felt better than Oleksy to see his team go up 1-0 in this best-of-seven series.

“I’ve been here long enough to know the situation and knew I had to elevate my game, chip in anyway that I could,” said Oleksy. “I just tried to keep it simple.”