At 21, Nicklas Backstrom Emerges as a Star for the Washington Capitals

Young center Nicklas Backstrom is emerging as a star for the Capitals in just his second NHL season.
Young center Nicklas Backstrom is emerging as a star for the Capitals in just his second NHL season. (Preston Keres - TWP)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

Nicklas Backstrom cut to center ice, glanced up and saw a gaping hole in the New York Rangers' defense.

Only the hole wasn't there -- yet.

Everything was unfolding at full speed, but in Backstrom's mind it was in slow motion. Then, without a hint of hesitation, the center threaded a pass between two Rangers and onto the stick of Viktor Kozlov, who scored the third of five consecutive goals in the Washington Capitals' 5-4 victory at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23.

"You see a lot of great passes in your lifetime, but there are only certain people who can make that pass," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He's one of those guys, and he did it with all of the confidence that the pass was going to get there. He had 3 1/2 inches, and the puck is three inches in diameter."

It's passes like that -- and the rate at which he's been racking up points recently -- that have the league buzzing about Backstrom. He was expected to blossom into a world-class playmaker someday; it just wasn't supposed to happen three months into his second NHL campaign, just a month after his 21st birthday.

"Every year you want to be better," Backstrom said. "I have that responsibility right now. I get a lot of ice time. I want to be good out there. I don't want to be just some random player."

Over the past six weeks, Backstrom has steadily climbed the list of scoring leaders, and with 11 goals and 31 assists -- he notched one of each in Tuesday's 4-2 victory in Buffalo, the Capitals' ninth win in 10 games -- was tied for seventh entering last night's games, a ranking that has him garnering all-star consideration.

"If he's like everyone else in the history of hockey, he's going to get better," Boudreau said of his emerging star, who is younger than any of the scorers ahead of him, born more than three months after Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. "He hasn't reached his peak. He's capable -- I don't want to put too much pressure on him -- of being a 100-point producer."

That might happen this season. His point total through 38 games has him on pace for 91 points, 22 more than he had last season.

After finishing runner-up to Chicago's Patrick Kane for rookie of the year honors in June, Backstrom was expected to pick up where he left off in the playoffs. But he suffered an ankle injury during pre-training camp workouts, missed a portion of the preseason and, as a result, struggled at the start, amassing no goals and six assists in the first 14 games.

Then he broke out in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 12, recording a goal and three assists. In the 23 games since, he has amassed 10 goals and 22 assists, a surge that, not-so-coincidentally, has come as the Capitals have opened a double-digit points lead in the Southeast Division.

Backstrom no doubt benefits from playing on the same line as Alex Ovechkin, the reigning most valuable player and the league's third-leading scorer. But what has distinguished Backstrom's play this season is the fact that he has, on many occasions, dominated games on his own. Of his 31 assists, in fact, only 10 have come on goals scored by Ovechkin.

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