The running joke along the Washington Capitals’ bench holds that, at least once each game, center Nicklas Backstrom will make everyone laugh. Perhaps he dangled around two defensemen, a disappearing act only missing the puff of smoke. Maybe he threaded another pass through a pinhole window and surprised his target when the puck reached the other side. Or maybe, like in their 5-1 rout of the Winnipeg Jets, he launched a shot from beyond the faceoff circle hoping for a whistle and instead scored a goal.
“There needs to be an [isolation] cam on him at all times because the things he does make us shake our head on the bench,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s the best player in the league all around.”
The case file gained more evidence Thursday night, when Backstrom rocketed into a tie for the NHL’s points lead (63) and blew open the door on the Capitals’ third straight victory with a loopy second-period goal that made him think, “What’s going on here?”
With the Capitals already ahead 2-1 thanks to John Carlson’s power-play blast and an even-strength goal from forward Alex Ovechkin, the captain’s league-best 38th, Backstrom saw the official’s arm raise, signaling another tripping for an opponent already punch-drunk from penalties. The Jets arrived at Verizon Center as the NHL’s most-penalized team and, at the next stoppage, would soon go down two men.
So Backstrom stepped toward the net and flung the shot forward from beyond the faceoff circle. He hoped, at worst, for goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to swallow the attempt and send the Capitals to five-on-three. Instead, the shot zipped low along the ice and stunned Pavelec, who only closed his legs after the puck had skidded between them. Pavelec dropped his head and looked back. The Capitals mobbed Backstrom. Like Alzner, many agreed their alternate captain, still without an all-star appearance into his 10th season, deserves more national credit. Who could argue now?
“He’s as complete a player as you’re going to find in this league,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I’m astonished that he doesn’t get a lot more recognition. If you ask him, he’ll say, ‘I’m just doing my job, and you want me to produce. I do that with the players I’m out there with.’ That’s probably how he approaches everything. He’s a hell of a player.”
After the Capitals returned home from their longest trip of the season, deemed a sweeping success with three wins in four games, Trotz had fretted over the everyday tasks awaiting his players in the District. “All the honey-do things,” he called them, like seeing wives and children or shoveling snow and paying bills, and with little time between games, Trotz hoped they wouldn’t distract from the task at hand. After all, his team stood just five points from the Metropolitan Division summit, the tightest race in the NHL.
Winnipeg dominated possession early before an overzealous forward Mark Scheifele chased defenseman Mike Green around the Capitals’ net, hunting the puck, and instead tripped him to the ice. With just 16 seconds remaining until Scheifele released, Backstrom won a faceoff and Carlson uncorked a deep cannonball, aimed at two sets of trafficking teammates. The puck knuckled to Pavelec, who guessed low while the puck sailed high.
“They were all over us,” Trotz said. “We bent but didn’t break.”
Ovechkin added to Carlson’s goal, the defenseman’s fourth in seven games, when he slipped around defenseman Jacob Trouba at the blue line late in the first period, chasing after a puck that wobbled end over end, and jabbed it through two sets of legs, including Pavelec’s.
After a fluky bounce caromed off Alzner’s stick, hopped off his skate, looped over goaltender Braden Holtby’s head and cut Washington’s lead in half — a goal eventually credited to defenseman Toby Enstrom — the Jets began their parade into the penalty box. In succession, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Myers and Adam Pardy were all flagged for tripping, giving the Capitals a power play that lasted more than six minutes and, with it, more chances for chuckles.
Forward Troy Brouwer’s unassisted, shorthanded empty-netter at 13 minutes 33 seconds added to the onslaught, but this was Backstrom’s show. Less than three minutes after his first goal, Backstrom scored on a four-on-one breakaway that tied him with Chicago’s Patrick Kane for the NHL’s lead.
With Pittsburgh’s accompanying loss to Columbus, the win vaulted the Capitals over their rivals and into a tie with the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan.
“Most important thing is we get points as a team,” Backstrom said. “That’s what we’re doing right now. A player like myself, I get a lot of ice time, too, so I should produce for the team. Just doing my job.”