WASHINGTON, D.C. — The past 24 hours — and the start to November — have been a bit of a whirlwind for Aliaksei Protas. After making his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals on Monday amid an injury to Nic Dowd, the 20-year-old was set to return to the AHL’s Hershey Bears on Friday after being reassigned on Thursday afternoon. Just as he was about to head back, the Capitals told him to stick around. They called him up once again, this time to help fill in for an injured Anthony Mantha.
After suffering an injury against the Florida Panthers on Thursday, Mantha underwent successful shoulder surgery. He’s out indefinitely, leaving the Capitals with yet another void to fill with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie already on the shelf. Now, Washington will turn to its youth to step up and help carry the load — and Protas is ready to capitalize.
“I’m okay with that. I kind of need to replace like injured guys… it doesn’t matter for me,” Protas said. “I just enjoy every second here, learn from the best and just keep working.”
Protas was one of the last rookies left at training camp before heading back down to Hershey to open 2021-22. The 2019 third-rounder impressed in the preseason, scoring a goal and using his size and hockey sense to his advantage while improving on his skating. Protas laced ’em up for six games with the Bears to start the campaign, registering four points. He then headed to Florida to join the Capitals on their road swing and suited up against the Bolts.
“[The coaches] just told me to like play my game, have fun, enjoy it,” Protas explained. “They told me to just keep working.”
Protas skated just 3:53 minutes against the Bolts, but made himself noticeable and utilized his size while generating a couple of strong chances.
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Ultimately, he thought his debut went well, but he’s ready to continue to build on his game and continue to make progress.
“I know it’s gonna be hard battle, I knew it was very difficult,” Protas said. “I’m okay with that. Now we just got to keep working, moving forward.”
“The guys like more experience, so they move the puck faster, they think faster,” he added. “You have to like, be focused every second on the ice, so you’re ready every time you’re on the ice. It’s probably speed and the hockey sense of the guys.”
Protas joins an arsenal of rookies that have gotten to draw in for the Capitals this season in wake of injuries, including Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre and former and current teammate Brett Leason.
“It’s awesome,” Protas said of having several fellow freshmen along on the ride with him. “I’m so happy for everybody, they made it, so the guys have played pretty good. They all like score the first NHL goal so it’s really good, good for them. So they’re playing good and keep working on the ice, off the ice.”
Head coach Peter Laviolette praised the rookies’ performance so far this season and said that the team is still expecting a lot from their young players with several key assets missing.
“When guys go out, other people have to step up,” Laviolette said, adding, “We need these guys. Right now, we need them. And they’ve done a good job.”
Overall, Protas is ready to capitalize on his opportunity and hopes that it’ll result in not only his first NHL goal, but a longer stay and more progress toward his dream of a full-time gig in “the show.”
“I will get chances, so now have to work hard,” Protas said.