They stood together and smiled, the three who made history Sunday night, and if the man in the middle had his druthers, credit would have been halved between the other two. But Nicklas Backstrom was the one everyone wanted to hug, everyone wanted to congratulate and everyone wanted to snap a photo with to post onto Instagram. He was also the one who probably thought least about this moment, or else wanted to ascribe it the least meaning. The Washington Capitals had won a hockey game. That was his top story.
“As I said before, it’s a nice bonus and it’s always, you get credit for something, maybe you’ve done something good,” Backstrom said. “But you’ve got to remember that I’ve played with a lot of good players all the year. Without the teammates and coaches and the fans, I wouldn’t be here today.”
But he was here, the Capitals’career assists leader after vaulting over Michal Pivonka with two helpers during a 2-0 win over the Boston Bruins, blazing toward 420 in 260 fewer career games than the previous record-holder, and even the soft-spoken Backstrom seemed to enjoy the moment. He held the puck defenseman John Carlson blasted into the net, thanks to a slick power-play feed from Backstrom along the half wall, with tape wrapped around it, marking the feat.
He posed for pictures and smiled, first with Carlson and forward Troy Brouwer, who scored the momentous goal and notched the secondary helper, respectively. He took another with forward Tom Wilson and forward Alex Ovechkin, his linemates from a night spent dominating the Bruins in possession. Then he snapped one more with Ovechkin, the man Backstrom had leaped three games ago against Buffalo, the friend who predicted Backstrom would certainly break Pivonka’s record first, no matter that he entered Sunday night tied with both at 418.
“Yeah I just tell him congrats with that,” Ovechkin said last week. “It’s big. He’s going to be on top. Probably nobody going to beat him in this category. It’s a pleasure to play with him.”
Ovechkin might catch Backstrom yet, just two assists behind him and still knotted with Pivonka, but the likelier scenario has Backstrom rocketing ahead. He now leads the NHL with 53 helpers, five more than Sidney Crosby and Jakub Voracek. He ranks second in points, tied with Ovechkin and Crosby, one behind John Tavares. And in each of Washington’s past three victories, wrapped around its home struggles against Minnesota, New York and Dallas, Backstrom notched two assists.
“Obviously one of the best hidden secrets in the National Hockey League, Nicklas Backstrom was outstanding again,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, he’s the two-way hockey player that you always talk about as a coach, a guy that can play the high hockey IQ and make plays … Big game, stepped up, he was world-class.”
When the flock of well-wishers dissipated, Backstrom stood outside his locker stall and commanded the biggest crowd of cameras Sunday night, even after defenseman Nate Schmidt registered his first goal of the season and netminder Braden Holtby blanked Boston for the second time this year. He called the victory “playoff hockey” and praised a fast start, which had been missing over the Capitals’ two-game slide. He hurled credit onto Holtby and Bruins’ starter Tuukka Rask, “two good goalies out there today.”
To the side, Carlson spoke before a smaller crowd. He had initially considered slipping Backstrom’s pass over to Ovechkin for another one-timer, but caught the Bruins over-shifting, anticipating the familiar play. So he instead pivoted toward Rask and blasted it over the goaltender’s right shoulder, ensuring Backstrom got the record in primary fashion.
“It’s great,” Carlson told reporters. “No one will probably talk about it and he probably won’t say anything more than yeah, it’s cool. But he’s amazing, an amazing player, brings it every night, sort of a huge silent leader in the room. He says stuff and leads by example. He’s not a yeller and a screamer. Shows up for work every day with a skillset like that, good thing are going to happen.”
When it did finally happen, when Verizon Center acknowledged the record on the video screen and the crowd responded with a standing ovation, Backstrom lifted his stick into the air and nodded his thanks. Then he plopped onto the bench, slugged from his water bottle and, as if to prove the moment had passed, spit everything onto the ground while the cameras still rolled.