Joel Ward listened to the charges handed by the Washington Capitals’ resident wizard late Tuesday night in Pittsburgh and moved fast to obey. After all, when center Nicklas Backstrom gives orders to wait somewhere, you hustle to that spot and remain patient. Conjuring magic takes time.
Deep into the third period with the score tied, the Capitals were enjoying a two-man advantage, so Ward parked himself where Backstrom had said, on the weak side near the far post. The action unfolded across from him, but Ward stood wide-open and virtually still. He saw Backstrom gather the puck in the corner and circle between the blue line and the goal line, ordinarily the moment when he would survey the scene and look for an opening, sometimes taking so long that crowds — home or away — would howl for him to act.
This time, Backstrom saw defenseman Rob Scuderi protecting the slot with his stick, and, behind him, defenseman Paul Martin hedged toward the same area. Rather than force the issue, Backstrom zipped the puck past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and found Ward, who bent onto one knee and blasted in the eventual game-winner.
“I had a feeling something was going to come my way after him telling me that,” Ward said later. “I was fortunate to get an unbelievable pass.”
With the goal, Backstrom recorded his 44th assist this season — tops in the NHL — and his latest how-in-the-world highlight, the kind that sometimes makes teammates burst out laughing on the bench . On the power play, Backstrom leads around defensemen with quick glances before firing no-look feeds. Penalty-killers often use the sight of jersey numbers as a trigger, pressuring when someone turns away from the middle of the ice.
“With Backie, I think he almost wants you to do that,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who faced Backstrom for seven seasons in Pittsburgh. “Just because he’s really good at feeling that pressure and knowing where his outs are. I think he almost baits guys into doing that. Then he gets guys running around, and it opens things up for him. I don’t think there’s a better guy in the league than Backie when he has his back to the ice. It’s just the deception they use.”
Over the past three seasons, Backstrom ranks sixth in points, second in assists, first in power-play assists and second in power-play points, without earning a single all-star game appearance or any other award, besides the unofficial title as the league’s most underrated player inside the Capitals’ locker room. Coach Barry Trotz has consistently championed Backstrom as a candidate for the Selke Trophy, annually given to the best defensive forward. And at separate times this past week, both defenseman Karl Alzner and forward Jason Chimera called Backstrom “the best player in the league.”
As the top power play unit’s slot occupant and, by extension, a frequent recipient of Backstrom’s sneaky looks, forward Troy Brouwer has seen the 27-year-old trick opponents into unfavorable situations. With him, Brouwer said, penalty-killers are often divided between respecting Backstrom’s skill by sitting back or challenging him to get the puck away. So he notices Backstrom waiting for an opposing stick to slide eight inches out of the way. He hears the occasional boo as the power play clock ticks down. He watches Backstrom squeeze passes where only Capitals can reach the puck, then chuckles to himself upon watching the replay.
But Brouwer also knows the reason Backstrom has enjoyed a Hall of Fame-caliber career in unusual obscurity for someone with such success, a reason long since deemed not worthy of care by Backstrom himself.
“Nick’s a big-name player, but he gets overshadowed a little bit by the other big guy on our team,” Brouwer said, referring to the only NHLer with more power-play points over the past four seasons than Backstrom: teammate Alex Ovechkin. “I think he likes that. He uses that to his advantage. I know teams do key on him, but he does go overlooked a little bit.”