Focused on Oshie
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. North Dakota junior center T.J. Oshie just has that look about him — one that suggests he comes equipped with eyes in the back of his head.
Oshie's uncanny ability to make startling no-look passes to set up teammates for big goals may be on display the last time in a Fighting Sioux uniform when UND opens play Thursday in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals in Denver against Boston College.
There's a strong chance that Oshie will sign an NHL contract with the St. Louis Blues once the Frozen Four ends. If he does, he'll give up his final season of college hockey eligibility to play for nearly a million a year for the team that made him a first-round draft pick (24th player chosen overall) in 2005.
His amazing playmaking talents were on full display in the NCAA Midwest Regional last week in Madison, Wis.
In consecutive games, he made a no-look behind-the back pass — first, to set up Ryan Duncan's open-net goal in a 5-1 win over Princeton, and then a no-look drop pass to Duncan for a game-tying goal in the third period in a 3-2 overtime win over Wisconsin in the title game.
Just par for the course with Oshie, it seems.
"That's just something great players have," Duncan said of Oshie's no-look passes. "It's a natural gift. I don't know if you can really teach it. That's what they say about the great players in the NHL, that they think 2-3 plays ahead. When you play with T.J., he finds that open spot an makes that unbelievable play."
Oshie's play to set up Duncan's goal against Wisconsin that tied the game at 2-2 was breathtaking.
He carried the puck from his own zone at full speed, first leaving a Badger forechecker frozen at the Sioux blue line with a head fake, never breaking stride as he sped past him.
The TV commentator said it was a "dangerous play." For the average player, maybe. For Oshie? Not so much.
Oshie continued down left wing untouched and sped into the Wisconsin zone.
He cut to his right to draw the defenseman to him, then left a no-look drop pass for Duncan to rifle off the goal post and in for the second of two Sioux goals in 47 seconds in the startling third period rally.
"He can see plays others don't see on the ice," Duncan said. "I can't remember, I might have yelled at him. Or just skating up ice, he can hear you or sense you in some way. He just knew I'd be in that area, and put the pass right on the tape."
Duncan admits he's like the fans at times, amazed at what his linemate does on the ice.
"It's unbelievable," Duncan said. "He's got all the skills that the greatest players in the world have. There's a reason why he's an NHL first-round pick. We've seen it throughout his career — he makes other players look silly at times. He's fun to watch, and he's fun to play with."
No wonder, then, that Oshie leads the Fighting Sioux in goals (18), assists (25), points (43), power-play goals (7) and game-winning goals (5).
There was a report that when Oshie attended the NHL combine in 2005 prior to the draft and went through a battery of exams, he scored off the chart in a test for peripheral vision.
Oshie's not sure of that.
"I don't remember too much of that," he said. "The one they said I was good at was hand-eye coordination, but I never really saw the scores."
On his play against Princeton to set up Duncan's third goal of the game, Oshie stripped a Princeton player of the puck in neutral ice, then whipped the puck behind his back to find Duncan in open space for an empty-net goal in the closing minutes.
"It all comes from realizing what's going to happen before it does," Oshie said.
And in his case, then being able to place passes into spaces he never appears to even be looking at.
"I saw Duncan coming even before I got the puck," Oshie said of the Princeton goal. "So I knew where he was going to be. I just figured I'd throw it into an area and let him skate into it."
Oshie said there's a great chemistry between Duncan and himself from the two of them being linemates the bulk of their college careers.
"I know where he's at on the ice most of the time," Oshie said.
On the goal against Wisconsin, Oshie said he first spotted Duncan near the red line as the two crossed lanes. On television, it didn't look like Oshie ever looked at Duncan.
"I knew where he was when I made that drop pass," Oshie said. "I saw him out of the corner of my eye. That's just a play we run every day (in practice)."
To run it well in practice is one thing. To execute it on the big stage of a NCAA regional championship game when your team is behind is another matter.
Yet it's a byproduct of two great players — Duncan was the 2007 Hobey Baker winner, Oshie a 2008 finalist — working together at an elite level.
People talk at length about Oshie's strength on the puck and his ability to stickhandle through the heaviest of traffic. Breaking down how his vision plays into it is a bit more difficult to quantify — even for Oshie.
"I think it's all just recognizing what's going to happen before it does," Oshie said.
Or, as Duncan said of Oshie, it's what great players do.