By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
On one side of the Washington Capitals' locker room there's Mike Green, who captured the attention of the hockey world this month as he broke the record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman. In the opposite corner sits Alex Ovechkin, whose improbable goals and penchant for the dramatic always keep the NHL's spotlight, or a throng of reporters, nearby.
But while the league's focus constantly rests on the Capitals' stable of young stars, somehow Nicklas Backstrom found a way to go relatively unnoticed while racking up numbers that could place him among the franchise's all-time best setup men in just his second NHL season.
"He's playing a lot," veteran centerman Sergei Fedorov said. "I remember when I was young, playing a lot. I was able to get really comfortable from game to game, I see same thing with Nicklas. For me his progress is not surprise . . . with all the ice time and all these opportunities on the power play he's gaining confidence. He's not thinking about the game anymore. He's just executing and it's helping him become what he is."
Backstrom has 49 assists and 64 points in 60 games this season -- just six assists and five points shy of his rookie-year totals. If he continues to feed his teammates an average of .817 assists per game, Backstrom would finish the regular season with 66 assists to pass Michal Pivonka, who recorded 65 in 1995-96, for the third-highest single-season assist total in Capitals history. Dennis Maruk holds the Washington record with his 76 assists in 1981-82 and Adam Oates is second all-time with 69 in 2000-01.
"I'm always working on trying to read what other team will do," said Backstrom, who is tied with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf for the fourth-most assists in the league. "On power play or in offensive zone we try to have lots of puck movement, that's helped me a lot. We just try to keep things moving. I like that."
Backstrom enters tonight's game at Verizon Center against Philadelphia, which is one of just two Eastern Conference teams against whom Washington doesn't have a winning record, with points in six straight games.
His sophomore season hasn't been all multiple-point showings and accolades though. After an eight-game stretch in January when Backstrom recorded just three points, Coach Bruce Boudreau moved the centerman off Ovechkin's line for a change of pace. In the 11 games since that change, Backstrom, who has since been reunited with Ovechkin on the top line, has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) and a plus-7 rating.
"A lot of people want to credit Alex, but I credit Nicky with a lot of Alex's success as well," said Boudreau, who rarely hesitates to give his young players more responsibility. Over the past 11 games, Backstrom averaged 2 minutes 14 seconds on the penalty kill, helping the Capitals unit deny its opponent on 50 of 59 opportunities (84.7 percent).
Backstrom knew as a center he needed to improve his defensive play, and his dedication to becoming more well-rounded has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.
"I think he realizes as a center he needs to play down on defense just as well," Fedorov said. "Down low in our zone he's realized he needs to work a little harder and that's what he's done. That's maturity."
Capitals Notes: Veteran wing Viktor Kozlov skated yesterday but said he has no timetable to return after missing eight straight games with a groin muscle pull. "I really can't guess when," Kozlov said. "But it's feeling better every time I go out there." . . . Boudreau hinted that rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth may get the opportunity for another start sometime this week as the Capitals play three games in four days beginning Thursday when they host Atlanta.