When Oliver Wahlstrom wrapped-up his first professional training camp, he noted that he had a feeling he would be back with the New York Islanders sooner than later. The gut feeling was dutifully justified less than three weeks later, as Wahlstrom made his NHL debut on Monday afternoon in a thrilling 3-2 overtime win against the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
With the void of right-winger Jordan Eberle, who was ruled day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, Wahlstrom received his highly-anticipated call-up a few hours after returning home on Sunday morning from a weekend set against Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Wahlstrom earned it in Bridgeport, as he had registered three points (1G, 2A) in four games with the Sound Tigers.
"We got back from Charlotte at 7 am [on Sunday]," Wahlstrom said. "I went back [home] and took a nap and then I got that call. It was pretty humbling to get that call and come up and prepare for this game. It was an unbelievable game and win for us. I'm very fortunate to have gotten this call."
The 6-foot-2, 211-pound sniper made the most of the opportunity and showed no hesitation in playing his first NHL game, against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, nonetheless. Wahlstrom logged 15:13 of time on ice, including 1:07 on the power play and had two shots on goal. He threw a pair of solid hits on Tyler Bozak and Justin Faulk on his first two shifts and demonstrated his shooter's mentality as he ripped a shot towards St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington midway through the first period, just missing the net wide.
With a little over seven-minutes remaining in the second period, Wahlstrom created a Grade-A opportunity. He grabbed a loose puck along the boards and weaved through the slot before sending a backhander just wide of Binnington's stick.
"I thought he was really good," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "I thought he was really effective. I thought for his first game he didn't look out of place at all. He was physical. The speed wasn't an issue. I thought he moved his feet, he stayed involved. He didn't watch the game. He was strong on pucks and he got some opportunities. He put himself in a position to get some opportunities. For a first game, it was a good one."
Video: Wahlstrom on his first game
When the Isles were down by one goal with just over a minute to go in regulation, Trotz said there was "no hesitation" he and the coaching staff had in the rookie to send him over the boards with Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee at such a crucial point in the game.
"I thought he played great," Barzal said. "He hung in there and made some really skilled plays which is really nice to see. Obviously, it's his first game and there's learning lessons to be had and things like that. But for a young guy to come up like that against the best team in the league per se and give that kind of performance, he probably led our team in shots tonight. You could tell that he's got the attributes to be a pretty lethal player in this league. It was a good thing for our organization to see him come in and do that well."
The emotions on Monday afternoon were plentiful for the young winger, as his father Joakim took a 5 a.m. flight from Georgia to watch his son make his NHL debut. The pair shared an emotional moment as Joakim helped Wahlstrom pick out his tie for the game and as Wahlstrom took his solo lap during warm-ups.
"It was really special," Wahlstrom recalled. "He helped me choose out my tie today. It got really emotional. I had to leave before he teared up, but it was really special to have him here...I didn't know if I should skate fast or slow [during his solo lap]. It was great. You dream of that as a kid. I didn't know what to think when I came into the locker room, I blanked out a bit. It was unbelievable."
Before the game, when Trotz addressed the media he noted that he would play whatever players would best help the team. The bon-a-fide goal-scorer knew the call-up allotted him the opportunity to make a lasting impression. But for the time being, the self-professed 'happy, go-lucky kid' is relishing the moment and hopes to continue to capitalize on this opportunity.
"Obviously, that's the goal [to stay]," Wahlstrom said. "For me, right now, I'm just taking it one day at a time and trying to keep working hard and keep learning."