Heading into an important game in Carolina on March 14, the Washington Capitals had lost three straight, their two best players combining for just one point in that span. If Washington was going to make a push for the playoffs, it needed to hurry.
So Coach Adam Oates reunited franchise pillars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the same line for the first time since the first week of the season, even though the Capitals’ bench boss now insists he can’t recall why he thought it was a good idea to put the struggling players together.
“Can’t really remember exactly what the decision was,” Oates said recently. “Just probably looking for a spark.”
He got one. In the 17 games since the change, Ovechkin and Backstrom have once again been Washington’s dynamic duo, combining for 49 points and 21 of the team’s 57 goals and leading the charge in a 13-3-1 run up the Eastern Conference standings.
Whether the timing of the reunion — just as both players appeared genuinely comfortable in Oates’s system, and Ovechkin familiar with the right wing — or the chemistry honed over six years as teammates has had more to do with the pair’s recent surge is uncertain. Either way, it was just what the Capitals needed.
“Your supporting players can only take you so far, and you need your top players to win you games most nights,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “You need your best players to be your best players. Everyone else around the league who’s doing well, team-wise, their leading scorers are their top line, and that’s how it should be. Nicky and Ovi have played together for quite a few number of years; they’ve got good chemistry between them.”
Ovechkin has recorded 18 goals to become the NHL’s leading goal scorer and posted 26 of his team-high 46 points since he rejoined his longtime center. Backstrom has three goals and 20 assists — 13 of which have been on Ovechkin goals.
The latest example of the two’s uncanny on-ice connection came late in the first period of Washington’s 6-5 overtime win Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Backstrom gained possession after a turnover in the Capitals’ end and turned near the left-side boards to cross over the blue line when he saw Ovechkin on the opposite side of the rink, ready to race up ice. Even though three opponents crowded the neutral zone, the 25-year-old Swede flung a pass through center in search of his teammate. Ovechkin knew the pass was coming and burst up the ice in anticipation just as Backstrom released the puck.
“You know he’s a great shooter,” Backstrom said, playing down the changes in Ovechkin’s game. “It doesn’t really matter where you give him the puck on the ice, he’s going to get a good shot — a chance to score — wherever it is.”
The pass bounced off Lightning forward Alex Killorn but kept rolling forward, allowing Ovechkin to increase his speed, chase down the loose puck, finish and land with a happy thud into the Verizon Center glass.
“That’s what I want [as] a winger. I want the puck when I have speed and when I have opportunity to do something,” Ovechkin said. “He’s kind of guy, he’s not going to wait half a second longer, he’s just going to give me [puck] right away.”
It was a play few players could combine to pull off. But when Ovechkin and Backstrom are in sync and producing consistently, anything seems possible.
While it’s in part the chemistry between the two superstar players, Backstrom has said repeatedly that he believes success is a product of the team’s improved play overall.
Similarly, Oates often credits Marcus Johansson, who has three goals and 12 assists in 15 games on the top line, as an unsung contributor and emphasizes how the young forward has been able to open up space for his more prominent linemates.
“With us winning, I think everybody gets confidence from that and our line has been playing pretty good lately, and hopefully we can keep this rolling,” Backstrom said. “We’re creating more chances out there, we’re putting the puck in the net. Obviously Ovi’s scoring, but I think our line is working good together and that’s the key.”
To be certain, Washington’s reversal of fortunes this season and improved play in recent weeks has been the result of the efforts of the entire lineup. But when the top two players on a team lead the way through their own play, it makes it that much easier for the rest of the roster to follow suit.
“That’s why those guys are considered our leaders, because they go out there and they set the tone for us on most nights. It’s just weird, but you feed off that energy,” Karl Alzner said. “You can tell when [Ovechkin] comes into the dressing room in between periods, he’s got that excitement and that buzz around him and it’s just easy to play after that.”