By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009; D01
Nicklas Backstrom already has cemented his reputation as one of the NHL's best set-up men. But over the past month, the 22-year-old Swede has shown he has the potential to be one of hockey's best finishers, too.
Backstrom scored two more goals against the league's best goalie Wednesday night, giving him 10 in the past 11 games, to power the Washington Capitals past Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres, 5-2, at Verizon Center.
"He's shooting the puck," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Backstrom. "He's got a good shot and it's sneaky quick. We've been asking him for a long time now to shoot more."
Backstrom and the league's top-ranked offense struck just 78 seconds into the game and never trailed. Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Brendan Morrison also scored and rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth made a career-high 32 saves to give the Capitals their third victory in four games.
Afterward, though, much of the talk focused on Backstrom and his goal-scoring prowess.
"Alex and Alex are passing me the puck a little bit more," Backstrom, a line mate with Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, cracked before turning serious. "I'm trying to find better spots, so maybe that's the reason. Bruce told me I have to shoot more, so I'm trying to do that."
During his 11-game tear, Backstrom has taken 33 shots; he logged 21 in the 11 games prior to that.
The goals were Backstrom's 13th and 14th of the season. They also marked his fourth multi-goal game of the campaign -- three more than he had all of last season.
Backstrom certainly played a big part in the win. But so did the Capitals' strong start.
The last time the Capitals faced Miller -- the league's best goalie thus far -- the Sabres' veteran shut them out, 3-0, at HSBC Arena on Dec. 9. This time, though, Washington never allowed him to get comfortable.
The Capitals dominated the first period, outshooting the Sabres, 15-4, and taking a 2-0 lead.
Moments after getting robbed by Miller, Backstrom opened the scoring by finishing off a give-and-go with Ovechkin (one goal, two assists) just 1:18 into the contest. Ovechkin, from the corner, returned the puck to Backstrom, who blasted a one-timer from the circle into the upper corner of the net -- just about the only spot Miller's glove doesn't cover.
About five minutes later, Green stretched the Capitals' lead to 2-0. The defenseman settled the puck with the top of his stick, coolly glided in for a closer look, then ripped a shot that tipped Derek Roy's stick and knuckled over Miller's glove.
The Sabres put forth a much stronger effort in the second period, which ended with the Capitals clinging to a 3-2 lead.
Paul Gaustad scored on an odd-man break while the teams skated four-on-four. Then Morrison ended his goal drought with a tally that's destined for the highlights. The center corralled a rebound in the crease, stuck his stick between his legs and flicked the puck over Miller to push the Capitals' lead to 3-1.
"I went to it because I thought I was going to get jammed on my backhand and was going to be able to get it up," Morrison said. "To get the puck up, that was the quickest way. I did it once before, but it was 17 years ago in juniors."
Boudreau added: "It was a pretty nifty goal. It's composure. A lot of guys would have flailed away at it. But he had the composure to stop, pull it back and put it between his legs and put it in. That's a veteran skilled move."
Less than two minutes later, Tim Connolly cut the Sabres' deficit to a single goal.
But with a two-man advantage midway through the third period, Backstrom fired a crossing pass from Semin past Miller from a tight angle to put the Capitals ahead 4-2 and the game out of the Sabres' reach. Ovechkin's 24th goal, also on the power play, clinched the win and sent the Capitals into the two-day Christmas break feeling good about themselves.
"That was one of things Bruce told us before the game," Green said, "it can be either an okay break or a good break."
Capitals notes: Semyon Varlamov did not participate in the morning skate but practiced on his own. The rookie goalie, who suffered a strained groin muscle on Dec. 7, remains on target to return next week. "I know we keep putting it off and it ends up being a three-week injury," Boudreau said. "But we want to make sure it's his only injury of the year." . . .
Brian Pothier (bruised ribs) did not take the morning skate, one day after leaving practice early. Boudreau said the defenseman had cold-like symptoms. . . .
Boyd Gordon (strained back) is "probably" going to be assigned to the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears this weekend on a conditioning stint, Boudreau said.