ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy was with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League last season -- his sixth minor-league team in three years -- when he and his face had a practice they probably could have done without.
"I already had stitches in my mouth from a fight a few nights earlier," Oleksy said Friday, "and then at practice I took two pucks off my face. One was a shot from the point and one was a pass that got deflected."
That was just the half of it.
"Then we were doing 1-on-1 [drills] and I took two high sticks. So in the same practice, I got hit four times in the face, and I already had the stitches in my mouth. My face was just swollen and I had cuts all over. I was a mess."
One year later, Oleksy admits his face is still a mess -- "It's a magnet for pucks and sticks," he said -- but his future in professional hockey is much clearer. It continues Saturday with Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the New York Rangers (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, RDS, TSN).
After stints with Las Vegas, Toledo and Idaho of the ECHL; Port Huron of the International Hockey League; and Lake Erie, Bridgeport and Hershey of the AHL, Oleksy finally reached the NHL this season at age 27.
"When you look at how far he's come it's been great," said Capitals coach Adam Oates, who worked with Oleksy and Washington's AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, during the NHL lockout.
"The physical presence he brings to the game and the grit has been huge because now we've got a couple guys back there that, you know what, we're a little bit more formidable back there. With a couple of injuries, he's got a chance to play and he hasn't lost his spot."
The 6-foot, 190-pound defenseman joined the Capitals on March 5 and has remained in the lineup. He was third in the AHL with 151 penalty minutes at the time of his recall, and has provided the Capitals with a physical presence on the blueline while recording a goal and nine points in the final 28 games of the regular season.
"We saw something down there," Oates said. "[Assistant coach] Calle [Johansson] saw something right away. He worked hard; he was a sponge for Calle. ... He got an opportunity and he's taken advantage of it."
"The willingness to learn," impressed Johansson most during their initial meetings.
"It was amazing with him how quickly he could learn and adjust," Johansson said. "You could tell him something, and then you could see him change from one shift to the next. If he had a bat habit, he'd want to get rid of it; he'd take in information and then he'd never go back to it. That really impressed me."
In his Stanley Cup Playoff debut Thursday, Oleksy impressed many. Not only did he make a 60-foot pass to Marcus Johansson to set up the game-winning goal, but minutes later he blocked a shot with his cheek -- "Par for the course," he said.
The Capitals defeated the New York Rangers 3-1 to start the best-of-7 series.
"It was great to get that out of the way," Oleksy said. "You approach it just like you would any other game. From the times when I was playing in front of 200 people to now, you approach the game and you play the same. Obviously in the playoffs you amp it up a little bit but you have to battle, you have to compete and you have to leave it out there every game."
Though Oleksy's two-line pass that sprung Johansson made the highlights, his laying down and turning aside a Derick Brassard wrist shot with his face could be the lasting image of his first NHL playoff experience.
"He's got that strong jaw," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said, "and it's the style that he plays. He can thread the needle like he did on that breakaway pass but he can also take a puck in the face and see it off on his own. He's just been doing a lot of little things right all year, he's battling hard, and I'm sure it's a good introduction to playoff hockey for him."
Oleksy was examined on the Capitals bench after blocking the shot late in the second period but came back and played a regular shift over the final 20 minutes.
"I had no doubt that I would be back in there playing," he said. "It was just about making sure that the teeth were OK and that nothing was wrong with the jaw. With something like that, you've got to take a look at it first, but I knew that I was going to play regardless, so luckily there wasn't more damage."