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Nicklas Backstrom gets faceoff redemption, as Capitals’ top line continues to hold its own

(AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

PITTSBURGH – On a night when the Washington Capitals’ top line combined for three even-strength goals – thanks to a T.J. Oshie hat trick – that Nicklas Backstrom won just 26 percent of his faceoffs didn’t seem to matter that much in Washington’s Game 1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Except that it did bug Backstrom.

He more than made up for it in Game 2, as Backstrom won 18 of 20 faceoffs (90 percent), marking the highest faceoff win percentage in the NHL playoffs since 1987-88 for a minimum of 20 faceoffs. How did he do it?

“I have no idea,” Backstrom deadpanned.

What’s more impressive is that Backstrom has taken the majority of his draws against top Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who won 51.7 percent of his faceoffs during the regular season.

“I was just disappointed the last game,” Backstrom said. “I was bad at it, so I don’t know. I was just trying to do my best out there.”

The Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Capitals and Penguins is tied and now back in Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4, but Washington can be encouraged that its top line has arguably won its matchup with the Crosby line in the first two games of the series. The forward trio of Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary hasn’t scored yet this series, while Oshie has single-handedly scored on that line three times.

With the Penguins at home for the next two games, they’ll be able to control the matchups, as they will have last change, but Washington has shown that it’s perfectly comfortable pitting fire with fire.

“I think it’s a good challenge with a couple of superstars going head-to-head,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said on Friday. “Everybody knows what I think of Nick Backstrom. Crosby’s had a fantastic offensive year, just a complete year. I thought it was a good challenge for them to go head-to-head. … Try to out-play them every game, that’s the expectation.”

Backstrom has won 56.7 percent of his faceoffs against Crosby in this series, an improvement over the first round, when he struggled against Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux and won just 45.8 percent of the draws against him. Giroux was still held to just one point against the Capitals.

The importance of faceoffs as it relates to the outcome of a game is debatable, and a good example is Saturday’s game. The Capitals may have started with the puck when Backstrom was taking the draw, but the Penguins still dominated possession for the majority of the game. They beat Washington, 2-1.

Trotz has called faceoffs “the first battle of the game” and “the first battle on every play,” that you can’t score unless you have the puck. Jay Beagle said that when you’re consistently losing draws throughout the game, it can wear on you by the time you get to the third period.

“It feels like everyone is good on draws now, and sometimes you have those nights where it kind of doesn’t really work out, and then you try different ways and it doesn’t work out,” Marcus Johansson said. “But [Saturday] night, he was good and got it going. I think he kind of gets in their head a little bit and he’s the one who ended up winning the draws.”