For long stretches Saturday, Nicklas Backstrom was, without a doubt, the best player on the ice.
A year ago, that was so routine it hardly deserved a mention. This season, the fourth-year center has been sporadic.
Backstrom fired a season-high seven shots on net in Montreal, got the primary assist on both Capitals goals in a thorough 2-0 victory and, for 60 minutes, skated with the kind of gusto that made him one of the NHL's top centers in 2009-10.
In other words, he looked like “Old Backie,” the kind of dominant No. 1 center teams must have to advance deep into the spring.
“He played a really good game,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said after Monday's practice. “In Philly [last Tuesday] he was [also] the best player on the ice in that game, in a game we really needed.”
Backstrom told me Monday he believes he's turned a corner.
“It feels like I'm back now,” he said.
It's about time.
Backstrom was one of four players to surpass the 100-point plateau last season, amassing a career-high 33 goals and 68 assists. In 71 games this season, though, he's totaled 18 goals and 41 assists, putting him on pace for a meager – by his lofty standards – 63 points.
Backstrom's offensive decline has gone mostly unnoticed because there's been so much focus on captain Alex Ovechkin's dropoff in goals. It doesn't make it any less shocking, however. Unless Backstrom goes on a scoring spree over the final six contests, in fact, he'll likely finish with a career low in points. (He notched 69 as a rookie.)
Boudreau said Backstrom’s numbers may have have dipped because of the team’s switch from a run-and-gun system to a more defensive style of play in late December.
“Yeah, his numbers are down,” Boudreau said. “But all our team's numbers are down. We're still being successful. We've all changed our game a little bit.”
“Has any player in the league done as good as they did last year?” the coach added, coming to the defense of his player. “There are going to be no 50-goal scorers, maybe one 100-point guy. Scoring is down, and I don't think you can judge players, especially Nick, on numbers alone. He kills penalties, he's on [the ice] in the last minute, takes [important] faceoffs and his line usually goes against the other team's best line.”
Backstrom acknowledged that the fractured thumb he played with for seven games before sitting out five contests actually bothered him more than he had let on. Including the game in which he was hurt – Feb. 21 against the Penguins – he went nine games without an assist, extending the longest assist drought of his career.
“It was hard with the thumb injury for a month,” he said quietly.
It's also impossible not to wonder whether Backstrom, 23, relaxed a little too much after signing a 10-year, $67 million contract extension last May. He would hardly be the first professional athlete to forget what got him the big contract in the first place.
Then there's the belief that Ovechkin's mid-season struggles and Backstrom's were intertwined. Indeed, it's tough for a center to rack up assists when his star winger isn't scoring. It's equally as difficult for that star winger to score if his center isn't getting him the puck.
All of the above reasons are contributing factors. But it was something both Ovechkin and Backstrom said about 5 minutes apart on Monday that resonated with me.
“Last year, we dominate everyone in the [regular] season,” Ovechkin said.“We play unbelievable and we give everything we have. Sometimes in the playoffs, we don't have any emotion, any power, because we give it away too early.”
Backstrom added: “It's getting closer to the playoffs now, too, and you feel more energized.”
For six months, folks inside and outside of Kettler Capitals Iceplex have suspected that Washington was pacing itself after last April's historic first-round collapse in the playoffs. In that series, Backstrom didn't register a point in the final three games, while Ovechkin had a goal and an assist as Montreal rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit.
To me, it looks like we've now got enough evidence to conclude the Capitals were doing just that. They've won 14 of their past 17 games, all despite injuries to key players. Ovechkin, prior to his injury, had been playing better than he had since November. Now Backstrom, the team's second most important player, seems to have rediscovered his game.
Right on cue.
After all, no one will remember Backstrom's disappointing regular-season stats if he sets career highs when the playoffs begin two weeks from now.