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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)

Backstrom's biggest improvement, Boudreau said, is that he's making a conscious effort to be selfish. Instead of always looking to set up a teammate, he's taking more shots on net. As a result, he's only three goals shy of last year's total, with 44 games remaining.

"I think he's capable of getting 30-plus goals," Boudreau said. "The more confidence you get, and the older you get, you start thinking you can be a little more selfish in respect to shooting. And when you have the success shooting the puck, the more you shoot."

Boudreau has also noticed Backstrom's confidence growing, and the coach has responded by showing more faith in his first-line center. Boudreau has started turning to Backstrom in critical situations, including putting him out for defensive zone faceoffs in close games. The coach has also given him the alternate captain's "A" the past four contests.

Still, Backstrom said his evolution remains far from complete. There are a number of areas where he wants to improve, most notably acceleration and faceoffs.

Backstrom worked on increasing his leg strength last summer and has seen some improvement this season, but it hasn't helped enough.

"Slow is not the right word," he said of his skating stride. "But I want to be more explosive, my first three steps."

In the faceoff circle, Backstrom still loses more than he wins (47.8 percent). It's a skill he's working to perfect after getting a late start coming from Sweden, where, he said, there is very little emphasis on faceoff technique.

But the thing that doesn't need any work is the same one he struggles to explain: his ability to make imaginative passes, such as the one he made to Kozlov, that surprise opponents and wow fans.

"It's my best thing on the ice, the way I see the ice," he said. "I don't know where it came from. Maybe it was a gift from my parents."

Boudreau couldn't explain it, either.

"I haven't seen many kids his age -- obviously I don't see Sidney Crosby too often -- that can make saucer passes that end up on the guy's stick that aren't bouncing, over two sticks, on to his teammate's," he said. "It's something special."

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brian Pothier practiced with the team yesterday for the first time since suffering a major concussion on Jan. 3. While he still does not have a timetable for his return, it's the most significant step in his recovery. "I've made a ton of progress," he said. "If I have a great day, then I will push a little harder the next day and continue to progress -- until I get that setback. And I'm just believing that's not going to happen this time." . . . Defenseman Karl Alzner (bruised hand) returned to practice after missing Tuesday's game and is expected to play tonight against Tampa Bay. . . . Left wing Donald Brashear (leg bruise) remains questionable.

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