Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom Is Getting His Groove Back

Nicklas Backstrom, right, celebrates his goal against the Hurricanes with Alex Ovechkin.
Nicklas Backstrom, right, celebrates his goal against the Hurricanes with Alex Ovechkin. (Karl B Deblaker - AP)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nicklas Backstrom can't pinpoint one specific reason for his slow start. But of this much the Capitals center can be sure: He won't have to answer questions about his sophomore slump any longer.

Backis, as he is known in his native Sweden, is back after notching two goals and nine assists in the past four games, including what might be the setup pass of the season Saturday night in Newark. Yesterday, he was named the NHL's first star of the week for helping the Capitals go 3-0-1 in those games.

"It's good sometimes to score some points for your confidence," Backstrom said at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the Capitals practiced before heading to the West Coast, two days ahead of a four-game road trip that begins tomorrow in Anaheim. "I [was] struggling a little bit at the beginning. I wasn't good."

Expectations entering the season were high after Backstrom's strong finish to his rookie season. He led the Capitals with four goals in the playoffs and was tops among all rookies with 55 assists in the regular season.

But Backstrom sprained an ankle during an informal scrimmage Sept. 11 and missed the start of training camp. Though he said the injury slowed him only slightly in the first few games, he needed several more games before he no longer feared re-injuring himself -- a mental hurdle he said was as big an impediment as the discomfort in his ankle.

"I was a little bit afraid [because] of my foot at the beginning," said Backstrom, who turns 21 on Sunday. "But now I feel that I'm playing better, winning more battles on the boards and I've been working harder. That's the key for my game -- I have to work hard."

The first hints of Backstrom's impending breakout came Nov. 6, when Backstrom replaced veteran Sergei Fedorov on Alex Ovechkin's line in the third period against Carolina. Fedorov had left the game with a sprained ankle.

Though Backstrom didn't factor into the scoring, he, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin were a force in the final minutes as Semin scored twice in the last 2 minutes 43 seconds to spark a 3-2 win.

Backstrom has been on the first line -- and tormenting defensemen -- ever since. He's recorded at least one point in each of the past five games, including his first career five-point night (one goal, four assists) in Saturday's 6-5 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils.

Backstrom's resurgence has also helped Ovechkin rediscover his scoring touch. Since the two became full-time linemates again, Ovechkin has five goals and 10 points. Backstrom has assisted on three of Ovechkin's tallies in that span, while Ovechkin helped set up both of Backstrom's goals.

"I don't know what happened, but whatever clicked, I hope he finds that button and keeps it on," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Backstrom. Ovechkin and Backstrom "are tied to each other. One doing well means the other is doing well, and vice versa."

Their chemistry was never more apparent than late in Saturday's game, when Backstrom sent a patient cross-crease pass through traffic to Ovechkin in the final moments. Ovechkin scored with a second remaining to force overtime.

"I didn't know how much [time] I had," said Backstrom, who is tied for seventh in assists with 14. "I just got the puck and saw Ovie at the far post. I didn't have a choice. The goalie was right there so I had to pass it. This time it worked."

Capitals Notes: Semin was limited in practice yesterday because of the upper body injury that forced the team's leading scorer (13 goals, 27 points) to miss Saturday's game. He is questionable for tomorrow's game in Anaheim, Boudreau said. Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (groin muscle pull) said he hopes to return from a five-game absence against the Ducks. Fedorov (sprained ankle) is also traveling, but he was limping after practice and his status remains uncertain.

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