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Nicklas Backstrom returns to practice for the Washington Capitals

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It looked like any other optional practice at the Washington Capitals’ facility in Arlington on Saturday morning until the red-clad fans in the stands began to applaud and the handful of players on the ice started tapping their sticks against the boards.

The clamor was a welcome for Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed 37 games with a concussion, as he stepped on the ice cleared for full participation in practice for the first time since Jan. 6.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for 21 / 2 months,” a grinning Backstrom said after the workout. “I’m kind of happy right now. It’s good to practice with the guys; feels pretty good out there. I haven’t been skating long, but it feels all right right now.”

While there remains no timetable for Backstrom’s return to the lineup, the positive news is a boon to the Capitals as they continue a late push to reach the playoffs. With Buffalo’s home win over Minnesota on Saturday night, the Capitals (37-30-8, 82 points) dropped two points behind the Sabres for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, but Buffalo has played one more game. On Sunday, the Wild will visit the Capitals.

Backstrom has been symptom-free since he began skating regularly on March 13. Since then, the center worked out on the ice alone or with strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish for 10 out of 11 days, gradually increasing the intensity of his sessions until he could be cleared for regular practice.

“It’s good sign for us. Everybody knows we miss him,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “He’s that kind of guy we need right now. So I hope he’s going to be okay and he going to help us in these kind of games.”

Said Coach Dale Hunter: “It’s awesome. Awesome for the team, awesome for him. He’s a competitor that wants to play in these crucial games and I’m glad to see that he’s healthy now.”

Now that he has been cleared to take part in regular practices with the team, Backstrom must work his way back into game shape without suffering any setbacks. Then, in accordance with NHL concussion protocols, he must pass neuropsychological testing in order to be cleared by team physicians for game action, according to Capitals head athletic trainer Greg Smith.

Although he said he would “absolutely” like to be back before the end of the regular season, which concludes April 7 at the New York Rangers, Backstrom understands the importance of not rushing his return.

“It’s kind of like it feels like you’re back in training camp. It takes a little time,” Backstrom said. “Give me a couple more practices — I don’t know how long — we’ll see. But I can tell it feels good and see what happens.”

Given the uncertain nature of concussions, there’s no way to gauge how much time Backstrom might need before he is ready to rejoin the lineup. But whenever he is ready there’s little doubt his presence will elevate the Capitals.

Despite his lengthy absence, Backstrom remains fourth on the team with 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists). He was Washington’s best and most consistent player before suffering the concussion, in addition to being the No. 1 center on the depth chart. Backstrom plays in all situations — even-strength, power play and penalty kill — and when he is absent there’s simply no way to make up for the loss of his sublime passing skills.

“He’s a massive part of this team that we would love to have, we need to have,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, adding that whenever Backstrom returns it will bolster the Capitals’ depth. “He not only takes pressure off [other players taking on significant roles], but he makes everybody else better and that’s something that’s very special. Not a whole lot of guys can do that.”

There’s no question the Capitals are eager to see Backstrom return, but to a man, no one intends to rush him into the lineup before he’s ready.

“I want to be back as soon as possible, but you’ve gotta be careful and make sure you’re 100 percent before you go back,” Backstrom said. “You don’t want to get any setbacks and that’s what we’re looking forward to. I’m hoping I can be back as soon as possible, that’s my goal.”

Capitals notes: Joel Ward, who missed Friday’s game with a lower-body injury, is no longer on crutches, Hunter said, but the winger’s official status remains day to day. . . .

Washington reassigned Cody Eakin to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.

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