As Nicklas Backstrom has become more and more active in his skating sessions, teammates have been careful not to ask too many questions. The Capitals are eager for their top center to return to the lineup — an injured right hand has sidelined him for the past four games — but they don’t want to rush him, either.
“That’s annoying,” center Jay Beagle said of Backstrom’s position. “I’ve been in the spot where you’ve been injured, and guys are like: ‘How are you feeling? How you doing?’ And I’m like: ‘Okay, enough. Just let me recover.’ It’s kind of annoying after you get asked by every single guy. But obviously we know that we want him back. He knows that we want him back. But it’s one of those things you don’t really ask or talk about. You just go about business as usual and hope when he’s ready, you hope for that time to come soon.”
The Capitals suffered their first loss without Backstrom on Tuesday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and though Washington still holds a 2-1 series lead, the game underscored how he is missed. The Lightning got key goals from its stars: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point. The Capitals looked like they needed one of their best players back, although it’s unclear whether he’ll be ready for Thursday night’s Game 4 at Capital One Arena. He’s considered day-to-day.
“You miss him in every way, shape or form,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s a player who has a lot of impact on our team. He’s one of the guys that leads in the locker room. When you need a big play, a big performance, he’s usually one of the guys that will step up. He’s one of our leaders. … Nicky is one of those top guys that makes a difference for us all the time when you need them to make the difference. He plays every aspect of our game. He plays power play, penalty kill, late-game, defending or trying to create. I can use him as a shutdown guy. There’s so many elements that Nicky provides.”
Backstrom hurt his hand blocking a shot in Game 5 of Washington’s second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he managed to play through the injury most of the game. One obvious limitation was that he stopped taking faceoffs; versatile winger Chandler Stephenson stepped in for draws instead. On Wednesday, Trotz said he wouldn’t have any reservations about playing Backstrom if he is still limited in that area. “No one is completely healthy this time of year,” Trotz said.
Backstrom has been on the ice for the past two Washington morning skates, and he participated in the Capitals’ optional practice Wednesday, seemingly more comfortable shooting and puckhandling. Assuming Stephenson plays on Backstrom’s left wing to take draws, Trotz could keep center Lars Eller with wingers T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana, since that line has largely played well with Backstrom out. Backstrom, 30, had 21 goals and 50 assists in the regular season, and he has three goals and 10 assists in 11 playoff games.
“You can’t replace a guy like him,” Beagle said. “He’s one of our key leaders and one of our best players. He’s a guy who makes this team click and makes us go. Obviously to get him back would be huge.”
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