An often repeated refrain by skeptical fans in recent weeks has gone something like this: even if the Washington Capitals make the playoffs, it’s probably going to be a short run.
All that doom and gloom, however, gave way to a glimmer of hope Saturday.
And it wasn’t because the Capitals beat last-place Montreal in a shootout, despite blowing another yet another comfortable lead. Or the fact that neither Buffalo nor Florida have managed to seize the opportunity they were afforded.
It’s because Nicklas Backstrom, Washington’s offensive catalyst and most consistent player, is back in the fold with three important regular season games remaining. Now, with the notable exception of injured goalie Tomas Vokoun, the Capitals once again boast the roster General Manager George McPhee was praised for assembling in the offseason.
Much has changed since those heady days in early October when the Capitals opened the season 7-0-0 amid high expectations. But even the most cynical observer must acknowledge that Backstrom’s return to a lineup that’s got a healthy Mike Green and a recently resurgent Alex Ovechkin not only gives them a much better chance of making the playoffs, but of doing some damage if and when they get there.
“It wasn’t the same without him,” Green said Saturday, perhaps making the understatement of the season.
With Backstrom back, it means Ovechkin’s line is being centered by a proper No. 1 pivot, not a player masquerading as one. As a result, Ovechkin figures to spend less time pursuing the puck and more time playing with it because of Backstrom’s passing acumen and proficiency in the faceoff circle.
It means the Capitals’ scuffling power play should regain some of its lost swagger. Despite missing 40 games, Backstrom still ranks third on the team in power-play points with 18, two behind Dennis Wideman and five shy of Ovechkin.
And, finally, it means the dressing room gets back one of its respected voices. There is, after all, a reason Backstrom wears an alternate captain’s “A” on his jersey. The 24-year-old Swede leads mostly by example, but he had begun to articulate his authority more in the weeks before he suffered a concussion that cost him nearly three months.
Although Backstrom did not record a point against the Canadiens, he made sure his presence was felt in other ways while skating alongside Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.
He won twice as many draws as he lost (12 for 18) and was around the net a lot, firing two shots on goal while attempting five others. (Only Alexander Semin recorded more attempts.)
He also skated 19 minutes 40 seconds, which was less than only Ovechkin and Brooks Laich among Capitals forwards and half a minute more than his season average.
When Backstrom asked a reporter after the game how much ice time he had received, he expressed surprise at the answer.
“Twenty minutes?” he said with a chuckle.
That’s an encouraging response given he had not suited up for a game since Jan. 3.
In typical Backstrom fashion, he was also blunt in his assessment of the Capitals’ effort and his own.
He called the Capitals’ second-period effort “embarrassing” and criticized the power play, which went 0 for 5.
“We can still improve the power play; that’s going to give us confidence when we get that going,” he said.
“I had tons of energy, but then I ran out of it in the end,” he said, adding that he’ll need a couple more contests to get into game shape. “I think I can play a little better than I did today.”
Most important, Backstrom cleared the mental hurdle that every player must when returning from a long layoff due to a concussion.
Before the game, he said he was too jittery to nap. He also acknowledged questioning whether he was ready to return, a reservation likely caused by Sidney Crosby’s premature return to Pittsburgh’s lineup in December. Crosby played eight games, then missed three more months when his concussion symptoms returned.
After Saturday’s game, however, Backstrom did not sound concerned.
He got rocked twice by big hits – in the second period by the Canadiens’ Mike Blunden and in the third period by Alexei Emelin.
Both times, the Capitals’ star center emerged no worse for wear.
“I felt good,” Backstrom said of the hits. “Nothing to worry about. It’s a relief, actually.”
That relief can now shared by fans — even the most skeptical ones.