During each of his on-ice workouts over the past five days, Nicklas Backstrom has worked to fight off a teammate or assistant coach along the boards as he protects the puck. The glass rattles with each aggressive check, push or shove Backstrom gives and receives.
“I haven’t felt better,” he said Friday as sweat dripped down his face. His teammates note his strength during drills and coaches comment that the center’s natural timing is as present as it was three months ago, before a concussion interrupted his season.
As Backstrom continues to practice without a setback, indications are growing that his return may be imminent. Backstrom, the Capitals’ No. 1 center, might even return to the lineup on Saturday night when his team hosts the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center.
On Wednesday, Backstrom and Coach Dale Hunter were definitive that Backstrom would not play in Boston on Thursday. After Friday’s skate, however, they were deliberately vague about his status for Saturday. And while Backstrom wouldn’t say if he’s hoping that game will be his first since Jan. 3, neither he nor Hunter would rule it out.
“There’s no target date. It depends how I feel. Everything’s possible,” Backstrom said Friday after skating for the 17th time in 18 days. “It depends how I feel tomorrow and this afternoon and stuff. I felt good out there today, too, so we’ll see.”
Backstrom has missed 40 games since he was elbowed in the head by Rene Bourque, who coincidentally is expected to be in the Canadiens’ lineup. But by all accounts Backstrom, a 24-year-old Swede, has fared well physically since he began skating again on March 13.
Over the past week Backstrom’s recovery made significant progress. First, he received clearance to take part in full-contact practices; he then passed a neuropsychological test, which is required by the NHL before he can play again.
Backstrom said the largest remaining hurdle isn’t conditioning but rather being mentally ready for the rigors of game action.
“I think it’s more about that you’re worried about hitting the head again and maybe I’m out for longer than three months,” said Backstrom, who has been symptom-free since he returned from a trip to visit family in Sweden on March 10. “That’s the biggest problem I see. You just got to be mentally ready to face a hockey game.”
Hunter said he believes Backstrom’s greatest asset as a player will also help offer protection whenever he does return.
“I think through his career here he’s been one of these players that has great vision on the ice. I haven’t seen him take big hits,” Hunter said. “For him to get clipped like he did was a total cheap shot from the blind side. It wasn’t a clean hit.”
There’s little doubt the Capitals, mired in a tight battle to reach the playoffs in the final four games of the regular season, could benefit from Backstrom’s return. Before the injury, he was Washington's most consistent player, and his 42 points led the team for more than a month after he was knocked out.
To a man, though, the Capitals’ brass has stressed that they won’t attempt to rush Backstrom back.
“I would have liked him in the lineup 50 games ago. Obviously he’s a terrific player but it’s got to be his decision,” General Manager George McPhee said earlier this week. “We’re not going to put any pressure on him to play. He’s got to be comfortable and we’re not going to put this kid at risk by telling him we need him to play, et cetera.”
Despite any lingering concerns about taking another hit to the head, Backstrom has made it clear he’s eager to take the next step once he receives the appropriate assurances from Washington’s medical staff.
“I’m excited to get back on the ice, but we’re going to have a discussion in the trainers’ room and see what’s going on,” he said. “I haven’t played a game since three months back. I’m kind of excited and want to get out there.”
Capitals note: Hunter didn’t offer an update on the status of Tomas Vokoun, who left Thursday’s game against the Bruins late in the first period because of an injury. It’s believed Vokoun aggravated the groin muscle strain he’s battled since late February. While it’s uncertain how much time Vokoun will miss, it seems unlikely the 35-year-old netminder will be available in the four remaining games of the regular season.