For Backstrom, Olympics are a dream come true

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009; D05

Nicklas Backstrom's memorable month got even better on Sunday when the 22-year-old was the youngest player named to Team Sweden, which will defend its Olympic gold medal in Vancouver six weeks from now.

"The Olympics has been a dream since I was a kid," said Backstrom, the fourth Capital so far to make his national team, joining Russians Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Semyon Varlamov. "It was fun to hear the news. I'm excited right now."

Backstrom is also pleased with how his full-time job is going these days. With a goal and two assists in Saturday's 4-1 victory over New Jersey, he now has 202 points in 202 career games. He's also notched 11 goals, 11 assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-14 in the Capitals' past 13 contests, and with 15 goals on the season, he ranks second on the team behind Ovechkin.

Boudreau attributes Backstrom's uptick to being less "cute" in scoring areas. Indeed, his last 11 goals have come on 37 shots; his first four goals came on 61.

"He's shooting the puck," Boudreau said. "That's a [sign] of maturation. He's not trying to be cute. He's getting older. When he's close to the net, he's starting to like to score goals. It's a good thing to want to dish, but he's enjoying scoring goals and he's pretty good at it."

With 45 points in 38 games, Backstrom is also on pace to become just the fourth Capital to record 97 or more points in a season. (Only Dennis Maruk, Ovechkin and Mike Gartner have accomplished the feat.)

"You're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," Boudreau said. "He does everything for us. He now kills penalties, is on every power play and [plays in] every important situation."

Laich slumping

While Backstrom's goals and assists are trending up, Brooks Laich's have dropped off significantly. After recording nine goals and 11 assists in his first 21 games, the forward has one goal and six assists in his past 17 contests.

Laich takes losses and slumps harder than almost anyone on the team, and this is no exception. He was the last player off the ice following Sunday's practice after a lengthy heart to heart with assistant coaches Dean Evason and Bob Woods.

"To be honest, I'm playing like [garbage]," he said. "I'm just not doing the things I usually do. The chances aren't coming. Sometimes you think you're working hard but you're not working hard enough. Sometimes you're not working smart enough. For me, it's a combination of both. I think I can work harder and smarter."

Laich said he has not been able to pinpoint the precise source of his struggles. But one statistic that stands out during his recent decline is his overall shots on goal. In his first 21 games, he was averaging three per game. In the past 17, he's taken 2.3 on average, and he did not record a single shot Saturday night.

"He puts too much pressure on himself," said Boudreau, who three games ago moved Laich to center, a position that allows him to handle the puck more. "I told him to just go out there and play. He's a streaky scorer. He'll score six goals in 10 games. When you have a lot of guys on your team that can score, you're not all going to be scoring at the same time."

Theodore calms down

One day after snapping his stick in frustration as he left the ice, veteran goaltender José Theodore was more diplomatic about the Capitals' crowded goal crease.

"We have three good goalies and if you want to play, the guy who is not playing up to the way he can, he's not going to play," said Theodore, who has not played since Dec. 18, a span of four games. "If I want play more games, I have to play really well. It's the same for all three goalies."

Boudreau added: "It's not unhealthy to be upset. If he wasn't upset, it would show that he doesn't care. He cares. We all want to start. But that wasn't his decision."

On Saturday, Boudreau said Theodore would start Monday against Carolina, the NHL's worst team by nine points. On Sunday, however, the coach was coy about his plans.

Boudreau acknowledged that the goaltending situation could get stickier when Varlamov returns from a strained groin muscle. Meanwhile, the goalie filling in for Varlamov, touted prospect Michal Neuvirth, has won three straight starts, out-dueling two of the game's best in Buffalo's Ryan Miller and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur.

"Sometimes it's a good situation, sometimes it's a not so good situation," Boudreau said. "We'll find out what it is before it's all said and done."...

Defenseman Tom Poti, who missed Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury, skated lightly Sunday but won't suit up against the Hurricanes.

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