ARLINGTON, V.A. –Aliaksei Protas stands tall after a long optional skate at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, smiling a soft smile and gazing with wonder at the rink ahead of him. At first glance, it can be hard to remember that the 6-foot-6 forward is still a rookie — and a kid at heart.
Still, Protas’ journey to the NHL has been an accelerated one. The 2020 third-round pick grew up in Belarus, following the Capitals and Ovechkin closely, along with Evgeni Malkin. After all, Ovechkin’s superstar status has made Washington one of the “most famous” clubs back in his hometown. Fast forward to now, and he’s playing top-6 minutes with the captain and driving the Great 8’s Lexus.
“It doesn’t matter for me [where I draw in],” Protas said. “I just take every chance I can take to play. So if there’s a position I can play I will.”
His current role: playing on the second line wing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson. Of late, the combination has generated plenty of quality scoring chances and has helped Protas elevate his game to the next level.
“Great persons great players,” Protas said of his linemates. “Tom is one of the hardest working player on the ice. Try to learn from that from him. Backstrom one of the smartest guys in the league. Like how he dictate the game how he plays the game is unreal. One of the smartest guys. So just enjoy to play with them. Try to work hard, so now we kinda found the chemistry so it’s great. So try to keep it going.”
The ol' wraparound off the skate pic.twitter.com/mDufCmi4Op
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) January 19, 2022
Protas has points in three of his last six games and is now up to three goals and nine points through 28 games this season. The 21-year-old also plays a strong game on the backcheck, picking up 16 hits, 10 blocks and a +/- of plus-5.
“Sometimes we forget how young he is. But you see him in a game like [Tuesday’s win over Winnipeg], and you’re like, ‘He could be something,'” head coach Peter Laviolette said of No. 59. “…He uses his stride, he uses his reach, he’s got long arms with a long stick, and it’s heavy. And he gets into those battles. He works his way into battles and he’s able to come up with pucks and turnover pucks. He was impressive tonight.”
For Protas, that growth has a lot to do with the support group he has around him.
“I think trust from the coaches, trust from the teammates. Just support from each other. We’re a tight group, everybody helps each other,” Protas said of his confidence. “It helps me a lot so I’m trying to support my teammates just be the best I can be on the ice work hard like you said and just try to be the best player on the ice.”
Ultimately, though, Protas’ goal is simple: he wants to stay up in D.C., a city that he and his wife have gotten to know as home and have grown quite fond of (he favors it over New York). And to do that, he knows he has to keep the momentum going, especially as a rookie.
Yeah I think we gotta be more consistent. Cause like, it’s kind of like up down… But the main thing I said, we’re a tight group,” Protas explained. “Everybody support each other and we gotta go through that all together. That’s the only way. Now it’s we got a big win yesterday so we gotta try to stay on it.”