Oliver Wahlstrom may not have seen his first NHL goal physically cross the line, but he'll never forget that first-goal feeling.
"I skated around and [Kieffer Bellows] jumped on me and it was a pretty surreal feeling," Wahlstrom said. "I sat on the bench and said 'did that really just happen right now?' and everyone was giving me high fives. It was humbling to get that experience."
Surreal is a good word. Wahlstrom's first goal came in perhaps the most unique regular season ever played, with cardboard cutouts - including three pandas from the Smithsonian's National Zoo - outnumbering warm bodies in Capital One Arena. He'll have the memento of the first puck to go along with the memory.
"You always remember your first, it's a special moment," Anders Lee said. "There's a lot of hard work, it takes a lot to get to this point, it's an awesome thing for him and his family… He's going to score many more of those and it's always nice to pop that first one."
Video: NYI@WSH: Wahlstrom tallies first NHL goal
Wahlstrom was making his season debut on Thursday, skating on a line with Kieffer Bellows and JG Pageau. The new-look line, which paired two triggermen with a two-way vet in Pageau, was designed to give the Islanders some scoring depth. While Wahlstrom lit his first lamp, the line will only stay together if Head Coach Barry Trotz trusts them defensively.
While Thursday's second period was ultimately a forgettable one for the entire team, Trotz said he "didn't have any worries" with throwing Wahlstrom, Pageau and Bellows over the boards, including playing them at the end of the first period.
"We like to score goals, me and [Bellows], but I think the most important thing is how we play without the puck," Wahlstrom said. "We're young guys and we need to come and bring energy to the lineup every night and have fun doing it. When we play the right way without the puck I think our chances will come. That's the overall for us, play hard, get to the dirty areas and hopefully the goals will come."
Wahlstrom worked on his play away from the puck during his elongated offseason, one of several focus points for the first-round pick (11th overall) in 2018. Trotz noted how Wahlstrom came into camp in better shape - 205 lbs. down from 211 lbs. last year - and had a jump in his step. Trotz also challenged Wahlstrom to be more assertive in the play, as opposed to just stalking the perimeter waiting to unleash his heavy shot.
Video: Practice 1/29: Oliver Wahlstrom
"My nine-game stint last year was a really good learning experience for me," Wahlstrom said. "I had to adapt and change my game a little bit and I learned a lot from everyone in the room and the coaching staff last year and I took it this summer."
With the AHL pausing its season in March, Wahlstrom went over to Sweden in August to get game reps with AIK in Allsvenskan, the country's second-tier league. The 20-year-old posted eight points (4G, 4A) in 10 games - he missed some time with an injury - before coming back to North America for Islanders training camp. That time allowed him to test out the changes to his game and come into his second pro season with a running start.
"Playing overseas I wanted to get a head start and get the hockey lungs going," Wahlstrom said. "It was awesome for me to go overseas and play and see family in Sweden and it got me ready for camp."
He had to wait a little longer to get his first crack at the Islanders lineup, but he's been soaking up the NHL experience, absorbing all he can from veterans like his new center.
"He's a skilled player and a smart player," Pageau said of Wahlstrom. "He was very responsible in his d-zone [vs Washington]. He's not a guy that is scared of asking questions. Same way with Bellows. They are two guys that want to learn and want to do everything right and they're taking the proper steps right now."
What kind of questions?
"Just about positioning mostly," Pageau added. "Positioning in the d-zone, o-zone forecheck, on faceoffs, just to make sure we were all on the same page. It's those little details that make a difference that can create chemistry."
Whether the trio gets another chance together in the Islanders back-to-back set vs the Flyers remains to be seen, but for Wahlstrom, Thursday will be an unforgettable night and hopefully just the first of many.
"It was exciting to be back in the lineup with the guys and obviously scoring that goal felt awesome," Wahlstrom said. "Just playing with Bellows and Pageau has been fun, Pager's been unbelievable to me and been a great leader and helping me out with systems and everything so it's been good."