When Nicklas Backstrom stepped on to the ice Saturday morning he was greeted by a round of applause and cheers from the fans in the stands at the Capitals’ practice facility.

Defenseman Karl Alzner ran out to the bench to tap his stick against the boards in support as well, because perhaps the best news Washington could receive after an ugly 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg Friday night was that Backstrom has been cleared for full participation in practice.

It’s been nearly three months since Backstrom, who has missed 37 games with a concussion, last took part in a regular practice with his teammates. While Saturday’s workout was optional, attended by only 12 others, it was still a significant step and something the Capitals are happy to see.

“It’s good sign for us. Everybody knows we miss him,” Alex Ovechkin said. “He’s that kind of guy we need right now. So I hope he’s going to be OK and he going to help us in these kind of games.”

Before the injury, Backstrom was undoubtedly Washington’s best and most consistent player through an up-and-down season. His 42 points still ranks fourth on the team in scoring, even with the time he’s missed.

There remains no firm timeline for Backstrom to return to the lineup ( check out more about the recovery steps he still must complete here ) but whenever he does, the 24-year-old Swede will certainly provide a substantial boost to Washington’s depth.

While Washington has gotten by using a committee system to help fill in during Backstrom’s absence, it’s hard overstate how important he is to the team.

He plays in all situations and through 38 games this season, he averaged more than a minute of shorthanded time on ice per game and over three on the power play per contest. He was often tasked with taking faceoffs (58 percent success rate) in key moments over the course of the game. That is all without considering that Backstrom’s sublime passing ability is a catalyst for the offense, and power play, that the Capitals can’t simply recreate.

“It’s absolutely insane to think about how good he was doing,” Alzner said. “He takes a little bit of the pressure off some guys and he not only takes pressure off but he makes everybody else better and that’s something that’s very special not a whole lot of guys can do that.”

The Capitals and Backstrom understand, though, that while Saturday’s news is a significant advancement in his progress nothing is guaranteed as he must continue to move forward without any setbacks. Last season ,Sidney Crosby, whose struggles with concussions have been well documented, was able to take part in practice fully with the Penguins for two weeks before his symptoms returned and sidelined him once again.

“We hope, there’s always hope,” Coach Dale Hunter said when asked if Backstrom might be ready before the conclusion of the regular season. “We’re going to be careful but I imagine he wants to. He’s been chomping at the bit it’s one of those things that it’s up to [head athletic trainer Greg Smith].”

A few other notes from today:
— Hunter said that Joel Ward, who missed Friday’s game with a lower-body injury, is doing “better” and is no longer using crutches. The winger’s official status remains day-to-day.
— Washington reassigned Cody Eakin, who was a healthy scratch against Winnipeg, to Hershey.
— The players who took part in Saturday’s optional skate, in addition to Backstrom, were as follows. Tomas Vokoun, who has been battling a groin injury, Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby, Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Jason Chimera, Keith Aucoin, Jeff Halpern, Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson.