Nicklas Backstrom, a player known for having a mental edge on the ice, couldn’t get out of his own head at first. He felt discomfort in his hip after offseason surgery, but there was also an internal hesitation, a wonder whether his hip could withstand a battle for the puck along the boards. Then came the frustration — because playing tentatively wasn’t what he wanted, either.
After his surgery in late May, the Washington Capitals expected their top center to miss anywhere from the first four games of the season to a worst-case scenario of 10. He missed just three, scoring a goal and adding two assists in his season debut, making it look as easy as ever.
But after the adrenaline of playing in his first game wore off, though nothing was wrong with him, Backstrom didn’t feel like himself.
“I thought Backy worked tremendously hard to get back to the point where he came back probably 10 games maybe early,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Six to seven, eight, 10 games early, based on if he went the distance on what the doctor said. . . . There was a little bit of a drop-off. You lose a little bit of that adrenaline, and when you come back, the stiffness in your old injury starts to come back.
“You start getting banged around a little bit, so you’ve got to work through that soreness. Then you sort of ramp up again and get used to getting bumped around and going through that grind.”
It wasn’t until the Capitals played the Dallas Stars last week, in the 18th game of the season, that Backstrom left the rink feeling like he’d played the way he’d wanted. That’s a daunting thought for opponents, considering Backstrom had six goals and six assists before that game, and most of those had come on the second line.
Now Washington has the first line it intended when the Capitals acquired T.J. Oshie in a trade, with Backstrom between Alex Ovechkin and one of the most skilled right wings Washington has had recently.
“I’m feeling like I’m more aggressive, and that’s what I want to be,” Backstrom said. “But the first couple games, obviously, there was a little discomfort and it was a little mental, too, like, ‘Can I go into this?’ It’s all in your head, I think. When you keep playing, you get more comfortable. The last couple games, I feel like it’s been more my type of games. That’s how I want to play.”
There was a glimpse of how good that trio could be in Washington’s game against Columbus on Oct. 30, when the three had a shift together and steamrolled into the offensive zone on a three-on-one. Ovechkin passed from the left faceoff circle to Backstrom on the right. Skating backward, Backstrom pushed the puck to Oshie, who fired from the slot, a perfectly executed tic-tac-toe play.
Evgeny Kuznetsov centered Ovechkin and Oshie while Backstrom was still recovering from surgery and there became the team’s leading scorer. How well he played, in fact, allowed Trotz to keep Backstrom on the second line and ease him in. But with Backstrom having assisted on more than 170 of Ovechkin’s goals, it was only a matter of time before the two were reunited.
In their second game back together, against Dallas, Backstrom said he was more aggressive, particularly on the forecheck. He scored a goal and then set up Ovechkin’s 484th, the one that made him the highest-scoring Russian ever.
“It felt normal again, if you know what I mean,” Backstrom said.
“When he gets going,” Marcus Johansson said, “he’s pretty much unstoppable.”
The top line has flourished with Backstrom there for the last five games, as Backstrom has had six points and Ovechkin has had three goals with the Capitals 4-1-0 in that stretch. Oshie has had two assists, still adjusting to playing with Backstrom.
Oshie said he’s already noticed that the line is getting more offensive-zone time and that the three are connecting more easily Chemistry will come, especially now that the line’s anchor is feeling good again.
“When you’ve been hurt, I feel like you’re kind of like a little worried about what’s going to happen if you get into a battle and stuff like that,” Backstrom said. “Everything’s been all right, so you just get those thoughts out of your head.”