Capitals Notebook

Rookie Backstrom Settles In, With Points, Wins Adding Up

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007

So much was thrown at Nicklas Backstrom all at once -- the grind of the NHL schedule, the more physical style of play, the smaller ice surface, not to mention adapting to life on his own in a foreign country.

The first few months of his NHL experience were, at times, overwhelming on and off the ice for the Washington Capitals rookie. But lately, he has become more comfortable, and the results have been apparent on the score sheet. After scoring once in his first 21 games, Backstrom has amassed three goals and four assists in the past eight.

"I feel a lot better now," said Backstrom, who again will center Alex Ovechkin's line tonight against the Montreal Canadiens. "My game, it's coming more and more. But I can still be a little bit better."

Backstrom's offensive upturn has put him third among rookies with five goals and 21 points, behind Chicago's Patrick Kane (32 points) and Jonathan Toews (26). It also has resulted in more ice time under interim coach Bruce Boudreau, who has played the 20-year-old Swede a minimum of 19 minutes since putting him on the top line on Dec. 8, including a career-high 23 minutes 10 seconds against the NHL-leading Detroit Red Wings on Monday.

Boudreau said he is pleased with Backstrom's improvement. But the candid coach also was quick to point out that Backstrom has much to work on, which served as a quick reminder of just how high the expectations are for the No. 4 overall pick in 2006, a player the Swedish media has compared to Peter Forsberg and the Capitals consider to be as important to their future as Ovechkin.

"I thought he had [the puck] on a string a few times, and I was like, 'Wow, wow, wow,' " Boudreau said of Backstrom's performance in Detroit.

"Then he stopped skating on [Tomas] Holmstrom's second goal. There were times where I had seen him compete a lot harder. That's what you get with young guys -- sometimes consistency runs shift-to-shift. But it's not going to be too long before he's on for 60 minutes all the time."

Backstrom's learning curve away from the rink also isn't as steep these days. He's learning to navigate his way through Arlington and Washington in his Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle. He has a list of favorite restaurants and has become a big fan of the television show "CSI: Miami." In his free time, he takes in movies with Ovechkin or dines with fellow countryman Michael Nylander and his family.

"He's just getting more comfortable and confident now," Nylander said. "At the beginning of the season, it was tough for everybody when we were losing, especially if you're a rookie. Now that we're in more of a winning situation, it's helping him out a lot."

Boudreau Still 'Interim'

Since Boudreau took over behind the bench, the Capitals have gone 7-4-2. The interim tag, though, has not been removed from his title and yesterday General Manager George McPhee said there's no timetable to do so.

"When you're 32 years, basically, up and down or in the minors, you're not going into his office and saying: 'Hey, we won! What about now?' " said Boudreau, who was promoted from the minor league Hershey Bears on Nov. 22.

"I think he definitely deserves to lose the interim label," veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig said. "I just respect him and look at him as my coach."

Gordon Returns to Practice

Checking-line center Boyd Gordon returned to practice yesterday after missing the past nine games with a broken right hand.

He participated in non-contact drills, but won't play for at least seven to 10 more days, McPhee said. Right wing Chris Clark didn't practice. He has missed the past nine games with a strained groin muscle and could miss several more.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company