When Chandler Stephenson woke up on Thursday morning he had no idea he’d be making his National Hockey League debut for the Washington Capitals later that night.
Sent down to the Hershey Bears on the last day of training camp cuts on Oct. 5, Stephenson, 21, was asked to hop in his car and get to Washington in time to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Without the benefit of a morning skate, Stephenson did as he was told and logged the most important 8 minutes and 43 seconds of his life in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
Back home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a herd of family and friends huddled around televisions waiting to see when No. 18 would hop over the boards.
“I told them I was playing and they couldn’t really believe it,” Stephenson said after the Caps’ 4-1 win over the Hawks. “I was kind of thrown in the fire. I know my dad was a little disappointed he couldn’t be here. It’s not a short flight from Saskatoon.”
With the Capitals playing at home again on Saturday night (7 p.m., CSN) before embarking on a three-game trip to western Canada, Stephenson said he wasn’t sure if any family members could make it to D.C. in time for Saturday’s game. Or whether he would be in the Caps’ lineup.
“We’re kind of playing everything by ear,” he said.
If first impressions are lasting ones, Caps coach Barry Trotz may have a tough time pulling Stephenson from the lineup. In his limited action Stephenson had one giveaway, one takeaway and won five of six faceoffs while playing on a fourth line with Brooks Laich and Stan Galiev.
“Chandler was really good,” said Trotz, who, like Stephenson, played for the Regina Pats of the Western League. “I thought he showed good patience. Positionally, he’s really, really good. That’s his strength.
“I thought he was just fine. You look across and you’re seeing Jonathan Toews and (Patrick) Kane and the Stanley Cup champions for your first game and sometimes that can be a little overwhelming. But he didn’t seem overwhelmed at all.”
At least not on the outside.
“With all the jitters and all the nerves, I thought it was good to keep as calm, cool and collected as I could,” Stephenson said. “(Laich) was awesome. He’s been in the league for a while and he tried to keep me as calm as he could. Having (Galiev) on the wing was good because we had some chemistry last year in Hershey. So it was good to see a familiar face on my line.
“Playing a team like the Hawks was a big test,” he said. “It was good getting those four preseason games. It helps you feel more comfortable. You can’t help but think what’s at stake and all the fans. It was very, very special for me.”