WASHINGTON – T.J. Oshie can't help it when he's on the ice with Alex Ovechkin.
"When you get the puck, you're always thinking, 'Where's 8?'" Oshie said.
The Great 8 is the best goal-scorer of this generation, but this season opponents have to worry about Oshie and wonder, "Where's 77?" The former role player for the St. Louis Blues has proven to be the right match alongside Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and could be the Washington Capitals' X-factor as they chase the Stanley Cup that has eluded them. The playoffs begin next week.
"Every year he's gotten better and better in terms his offense, in terms of his goal-scoring," coach Barry Trotz said. "When he first got here, I put him with Ovi and Backy, and all he wanted to do was get the puck to Ovi and Backy. I think they have the mutual respect that all three guys know that they're all terrific players and they can make things happen."
Oshie is making things happen in a contract year, shattering his career high with 33 goals in 67 games and solving the seemingly eternal problem of finding a right winger to play with Ovechkin and Backstrom. Even though his production jacked up his contract value for this summer, it will all be worth it for if Oshie helps deliver a championship in Washington's ninth playoff appearance in 10 years and likely the last best chance to win a Cup in the Ovechkin era.
Ovechkin said he hopes their line clicks at the most important time in the playoffs.
"I've been playing with some pretty good players around me that have done a good job of getting me the puck in scoring areas," said Oshie, who reached 30 goals for the first time in nine seasons. "It's a combination of things, but I'm happy for it. I want to make a run in playoffs. At this point in my career, I think that's more important than reaching a career high in goals."
Oshie was a driving force in the Capitals winning the Presidents' Trophy and locking up home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. He is poised to be the first teammate of Ovechkin's to surpass him in goals since the Russian superstar entered the league. That's a product of the 30-year-old Oshie being the most consistent top-line right winger in Washington since Mike Knuble from 2009-2011.
Former coach Bruce Boudreau believes the right mindset is needed to play with Ovechkin and Backstrom.
"T.J. Oshie in his own right is a star," said Boudreau, now coach of the Minnesota Wild. "He's not worried about setting Ovi up or Nicky up. He's playing his game, and it just so happens that they really mesh."
Backstrom acknowledged "it's not that easy to play with" him and Ovechkin, as evidenced by the nine wingers who rotated through in 2014-15, the season before Oshie arrived.
"Not everybody's always on their level as far as how intelligent they are with hockey sense, how they think the game, and then those guys need the puck to be successful," said Troy Brouwer, who was one of those nine wingers and was traded for Oshie before signing with the Calgary Flames. "Now that they have Oshie on that line, he's a guy that gets in the corner and gets them the puck and he's got a lot of skill, so those three guys complement each other really well."
Just like coaches have tinkered to find the right linemates for fellow generational talent Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin presents his own challenges. Ovechkin and Backstrom have perfected their chemistry over the better part of almost a decade, and Trotz said it takes a player with a good hockey IQ who plays a 200-foot game to serve as the third piece.
Oshie fits the bill.
"He can do it all," Backstrom said. "He's a really good two-way player. He (kills penalties) and he's very skilled, too. He's got that instinct when he scores goals. That's fun to see. You don't see that very often."