By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 24, 2007
PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 23 -- Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom displayed the patience of a seasoned veteran Friday afternoon at Wachovia Center, where, in overtime, he held the puck, the game's outcome and his teammates' fragile confidence on the blade of his stick.
He didn't let them -- or interim coach Bruce Boudreau -- down.
Backstrom delayed shooting for a moment, waiting for Philadelphia Flyers goalie Martin Biron to drop to the ice. When he did, the smooth-skating Swede scored to cap his best performance yet, lifting the NHL-worst Capitals to an emotional 4-3 victory.
"I decided I was going to wait out the goalie," said Backstrom, who also had two assists to notch his first multi-point game. "It was my best game. I feel good, the whole team felt good."
But as good as Backstrom felt and looked, it wasn't long before he was reminded of his rookie status. In the locker room after the game, Alex Ovechkin sneaked up behind Backstrom, who turned 20 on Friday, and shoved a shaving cream pie in his face as the other players cracked up.
"He played his best game for us," Ovechkin said with a mischievous smile. "He make some great passes and score a very important goal for us. This win was very important for us because of the hard situation for our team."
Ovechkin also had a big hand in the game-winner. Held in check for much of the game by Mike Richards and the Flyers, the all-star winger gathered the puck deep in the Capitals' zone, blasted it into the Flyers' end but lost his handle. No matter. The puck went directly to Backstrom, who made sure Washington didn't suffer the embarrassment of blowing a 3-0 second-period lead.
Backstrom's goal, his second of the season, not only snapped a five-game losing streak, a slide that ultimately led to the firing of Glen Hanlon on Thursday, it also gave Boudreau a win in his NHL debut. One of Boudreau's first decisions was to move Backstrom down to the fourth line, where he played with Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley. That line, Boudreau said, could stay together.
"The fourth line was great," Boudreau said. "I thought they were the best line on the ice."
As the Capitals boarded a charter bus afterward and headed back to Washington for Saturday night's game against the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes, they still were in last place in the league with a meager 15 points. But there was no way to measure the amount of confidence they gained when Backstrom's shot found the back of the net, giving them just their second win this month.
"We had a little extra jump in our step," said Brooks Laich, one of seven Capitals who played for Boudreau with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears in rookie seasons. "To get that first win for Bruce, it was just awesome."
Goaltender Olie Kolzig (22 saves) added: "Bruce told us to just go out and play. The worst thing you can do as a hockey player is go out and think. We responded. We had a pretty good game against Ottawa, but we were more dominating today."
It very easily could have ended with another devastating defeat.
Mike Green put the Capitals ahead 1-0 with a one-timer, set up by Backstrom's nifty cross-ice pass in the first period. Second-period strikes by Chris Clark and Donald Brashear put Washington up 3-0.
Then with about five minutes remaining in the second, Clark picked a fight with Scott Hartnell after the rugged Flyers winger laid out Boyd Gordon with a crushing -- but legal -- shoulder check to the head in open ice.
Clark, the team captain, was assessed 19 minutes in penalties -- two for unsportsmanlike conduct, two for instigating, five for fighting and a 10-minute game misconduct. The unsportsmanlike was assessed because he initiated a fight while wearing a visor.
Daniel Bri¿re made Washington pay moments later when he whacked in the puck off Kolzig's pads at 15 minutes 45 seconds, pulling the Flyers within 3-1.
Boudreau defended Clark, saying: "It's sticking up for your teammates. That was a good thing, a leadership thing."
Clark said: "I'm not really in any shape to be fighting. But it was a late hit, and Gordo was in a vulnerable position. It's not the type of thing that goes unnoticed."
Jeff Carter scored the Flyers' second goal 2:04 after Bri¿re's tally. Carter muscled his way past Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz, then chipped a pass from R.J. Umberger past an unsuspecting Kolzig to make it 3-2.
The Flyers, who came into the game with 12 more points than the Capitals, cranked up the pressure in the third period, and finally got the equalizer with 4:15 left to play when Richards jammed a rebound past a sprawled Kolzig.
The stage for another devastating Capitals' loss seemed set. But Washington killed off a late Flyers power play (defenseman Tom Poti was assessed a two-minute penalty for slashing) to force overtime, then Backstrom bailed them out.
"I didn't realize but he sees the ice so well," Boudreau said of Backstrom. "The pass to Mike on the first goal and the composure he has is really good in the offensive zone. But like any young guy he's going to have to learn his own zone. But I thought he was pretty good."
Capitals Notes: Alexander Semin did not accompany the team to Philadelphia after tweaking his sprained right ankle in practice on Thursday. The high-scoring winger is listed as day-to-day. Flyers left wing Simon Gagn¿ missed his seventh consecutive game with a concussion.