Around lunchtime, Nicklas Backstrom knew. He had been waiting for almost two weeks, listening to doctors, wondering when his right hand would heal, watching as his team advanced to a new frontier without him. He skated with teammates Thursday morning, and finally, early in the afternoon, doctors told him he could play again.
Backstrom’s return served only as cold comfort by the end of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, which the Washington Capitals lost, 4-2, despite controlling the run of play throughout against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even though the series was tied at 2, the Capitals’ soul, with the return of Backstrom, was again intact.
Backstrom logged nearly 19 minutes, about three minutes down from his playoff average but still among Washington’s team leaders. He took nine faceoffs and won six. He had a quiet start and made more of an impact as the game wore on, playing a key role in the Capitals’ desperate, 6-on-5 push, yet another dose of pressure that went unfulfilled.
“I thought he played a hell of a game,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We’ve been holding him back a little bit, but he’s ready to go.”
But the specifics of Game 4 mattered less than his sheer presence. In the Capitals’ jubilation from reaching their first conference final of the Ovechkin era, something still felt incomplete. Backstrom had been by Alex Ovechkin’s side for all the regular-season achievements and postseason miseries. He is the only other Young Gun remaining. He’s still Washington’s most indispensable player outside Ovechkin, a do-everything center capable of wizardry when passing and power when scrapping in the corners, a special teams staple and a calming force. And when Ovechkin exulted on the ice after Game 6 ended in Pittsburgh, Backstrom was in the building but watching somewhere in a suit.
“It sucks,” Backstrom said. “But obviously when the team wins, you don’t really care. You’re just happy for the team.”
The team is happy to have Backstrom playing again. Despite missing four games, he’s still fourth on the Capitals in postseason points, having recorded three goals and 10 assists. With the series reduced to a best-of-three sprint, Backstrom gives the Capitals a full complement. Washington has displayed surprising depth in the poststeason, but it has struggled to keep up with Tampa’s high-end talent of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov. Backstrom evens those matchups.
“We’re going to need him pushing forward, especially now that he has a game under him,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “He’ll take on more minutes and a bigger role. You could tell as the game went on, he was getting more and more comfortable, so he’s going to be a much-needed asset for us in these next few games for sure.”
Trotz used him on a line with Chandler Stephenson and Brett Connolly, not next to T.J. Oshie, as he had been previously in these playoffs. He played on the power play but no shifts on the penalty kill, where he usually appears in small doses. As his hand and wrist start feeling stronger, he could help a unit that Tampa Bay has abused throughout the series.
Backstrom exited the Capitals’ locker room with a wrap on his right hand and forearm, his index and middle fingers bandaged together with a gauzy substance running up his forearm. Still, Backstrom said he felt like his usual self.
“No excuses,” Backstrom said. “If I didn’t feel good, I wouldn’t play. And the doctors wouldn’t let me play, either.”
Outside of Trotz, teammates and team doctors, The smattering of fans inside Capital One Arena for pregame warm-ups learned Backstrom would play first. The image of Backstrom, in skates and a red No. 19 sweater, flashed on the video board above center ice. The early arrivers applauded. Backstrom had been deemed day-by-day for so many consecutive days that Trotz’s updates had bordered on running jokes. Morning skates and practices staged daily is-he-in-or-out dramas.
Now Backstrom was gliding around the rink, the last clue that his return from an apparent right hand injury — labeled only as an “upper-body injury” — would come in Game 4. The small crowd acknowledged his presence with roars.
When Backstrom skated into the faceoff circle with 19:01 remaining for his first shift, Capital One Arena erupted. Backstrom won the draw, and he would win the next two, too, his right hand strong enough to scrape the puck to his side.
“I surprised myself a little bit there,” Backstrom said. “It’s the playoffs. You’ve just got to grind. It felt good on the first couple faceoffs, so I just kept taking them.”
“He did a great job,” forward Tom Wilson said. “He was snapping faceoffs back and playing well. He’s a huge part of this team, and he did a great job. It’s not an easy thing to be kind of out with an injury and be coming back and to that type of hockey at this time of year. He’s a leader, he’s a tremendous teammate and he’s a huge part of what’s been going on in Washington for a long time.”
For that entire time, Backstrom has been one of the most durable players in hockey. Before this spring, he had never missed a playoff game because of injury, sitting only once on a suspension. He has played all 82 games in seven regular seasons and appeared in 81 this year.
Backstrom had to watch Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, had to be a spectator as the franchise he helped lift to regular-season prominence made the conference finals for the first time since 1998. He watched as they built a 2-0 series lead, and now he’ll try to help them win the two games that will get them a crack at the Stanley Cup finals.
“When you watch the team win, it’s awesome,” Backstrom said. “But yeah, as a hockey player, you want to play. It feels nice to be back.”
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