Washington Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom finally ends goal-scoring drought

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 11:17 PM

TORONTO - For a night, Nicklas Backstrom played as though this hasn't been one of the most challenging seasons of his NHL career. The Washington Capitals center moved fluidly up and down the ice against the New York Islanders, won faceoffs, killed penalties, recorded two points and created offensive chances for himself and his teammates.

It was the kind of all-around performance that Backstrom is known for, even if they've been infrequent lately.

Backstrom scored his first goal in 22 games in Washington's 2-1 win Thursday, snapping a career-long drought dating to Dec. 1 he described as unlike anything he experienced since his time in the Swedish Elite League. It wasn't the prettiest of tallies, a loose rebound in the crease from a shot by Alex Ovechkin that Backstrom swatted into the net, but it still counts.

"It feels good to score," Backstrom said. "I drove the net and there was a rebound. That's what you have to do, find the rebounds, when you're struggling."

Heading into Saturday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Backstrom is on pace for his lowest offensive output since his rookie season in 2007-08, with just 44 points in 48 games.

Backstrom is not alone among Washington players who aren't producing at the rate they're accustomed to. As the primary set-up artist for and the rest of the Capitals' stars, Backstrom's numbers will undoubtedly shrink when the team sees an overall decline in its goal production. Yet when Backstrom's crisp, how-did-he-do-that passes aren't there, the goals that finish off the play aren't there either.

Within the last week, though, Backstrom has started to exude the understated confidence in his play that helped him develop into one of the most well-rounded Capitals.

"He's not a one-dimensional player; that's why I don't worry," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Backstrom's lack of offensive production. "He kills penalties. His faceoffs have been extraordinary. You put him out in defensive situations in the last minute when you need things done. Obviously for him, because I know it's tough for him to go through. I'd like him to score, but he can always make up for a lack of scoring by doing something else, and he always does."

If Backstrom can return to the scoresheet, it may be a sign his teammates are on the same path. But in a season of inconsistencies, the Capitals experienced possible breakout chances before. Establishing a consistent offense has been a struggle for the Capitals for more than a month.

For Backstrom, one of the biggest factors in returning his play - and the team's - to the level the Capitals are accustomed to is eliminating the tentativeness that has become a byproduct of the team's struggles. The second-guesses are noticeable for Backstrom in the offensive zone when he hangs on to the puck too long, giving a goaltender or defenseman time to react.

"Sometimes I ask myself: 'What's going wrong?'" Backstrom said. "You just have to try to pull through it and get back to the right feeling again. Right now, sometimes it feels like we don't try plays that we used to. We sort of do things [half way]. When you're down, that's the way it is. You just have to work yourself back up, and that's what we have to do."

In the midst of his fourth NHL season, Backstrom has yet to miss a game and he rarely skips practice. Washington's coaching staff routinely explains Backstrom is a self starter when seeking to improve his play, noting he arrived at training camp this season bent on improving his faceoff percentage (it's at 53.5 percent).

That quality and the Capitals' reliance on Backstrom for more than scoring - whether with faceoffs, penalty killing or being defensively responsible regardless of whom he plays - means the coaches try to alleviate the pressure on the 23-year-old Swede.

"We've all talked to him and told him. The frustration is you. You're putting the frustration on yourself and you've got to forget about all that and go compete," assistant coach Dean Evason said. "We all want him to just forget about it, because when he doesn't you see it affect him. . . . We believe his scoring will come again."

Capitals note: Defenseman Brian Fahey was reassigned to the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears.

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