The easy thing is to say Nicklas Backstrom is underrated, and criminally so. But we have said that so much around here for the past dozen years that maybe the most overrated take regarding the Washington Capitals is that Nicklas Backstrom is underrated. He gets so little notice nationally, it’s tired tripe to point out how little notice he gets nationally.
Show up on the corner of Seventh and F streets NW on a beautiful weekend night in the springtime and talk to the folks in red. No one wearing a Capitals sweater — whether it says “Ovechkin” or “Wilson” or “Holtby” or, especially, “Backstrom” — will agree that Backstrom isn’t appreciated around here. What you’ll get is: We understand what we have here. Why doesn’t everyone else?
Saturday night’s 6-0 Capitals victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 of their opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series will obviously provide another opportunity for Backstrom to gain notoriety. He scored the Caps’ first two goals. He assisted on two others. He ran the power play from the half wall. He fired off four shots. When the Caps needed a leader, he led.
“Thought we played some Caps hockey,” Backstrom said in the most Backstrom of ways — barely audible, understated but meaningful.
Caps hockey isn’t Caps hockey unless Backstrom is at his best. He’s that integral to the brand, and that has been apparent for years. So we should have long ago retired the discussion of whether Backstrom receives the credit he deserves. He doesn’t care. Why should we?
Saturday night, then, was just an extension of what we’ve experienced for those dozen years since he first put on a Caps sweater and began skating alongside Alex Ovechkin. That’s an appreciation that none of what Washington has accomplished in that time — the Stanley Cup, yes, but also the complete revitalization of hockey in this town — would have happened without Nicklas Backstrom. Ovi will always be the scruffy face of what transpired here. Nicky will be riding shotgun, monitoring the GPS.
“He’s so smart, one of the smartest players in the game,” forward Brett Connolly said. “He just thinks the game like not a lot of people can. . . . He’s our leader. Obviously, Ovi’s our captain. But he’s right there with Ovi.”
What we usually think of with Backstrom is the subtle. What we got Saturday was that, plus the emphatic. What it represents is what he is: the complete package.
Let’s start with the micro, the urgency that comes with the present situation: a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series, with the opportunity to advance to the second round — and face Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders — with a win Monday night in Raleigh, N.C.
Backstrom is pushing them in that direction. That the Capitals needed someone — anyone — to assert himself, given stalwart forward T.J. Oshie is almost certainly lost for the remainder of the playoffs, was obvious. But when you went down the list of who you thought might make up for Oshie’s absence, didn’t the list include, say, Tom Wilson or Andre Burakovsky or — for goodness sake — Evgeny Kuznetsov (who still hasn’t scored in the series)?
“We need to help them,” Connolly said.
Turns out, we should have been looking to the player we so often say everyone else is overlooking. Backstrom’s first goal, on the power play, was a classic case of sticking with the play, poking his own rebound past Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek. When you think of this game as a blowout, recall that Backstrom’s second goal came with just 5 minutes 39 seconds left in the second period, on a two-on-one in which Backstrom and Ovechkin reversed their normal roles: Ovechkin made the cross-ice pass, and Backstrom went top shelf. The final makes it look like the Caps cruised, but at that moment in the second, Backstrom’s goal that made it 2-0 felt massive.
When Ovechkin set up Backstrom earlier in this series, he said: “Backy is a scoring machine. I’m Backstrom.”
“I heard about that,” Backstrom said Saturday. “That’s probably not the case.”
There’s no history of Backstrom scoring like this come springtime. He has five goals in the five games of this postseason. Know how many times, in 10 previous playoff appearances, Backstrom has scored more than five goals? Once. That would be 2017, when he scored six times — in 13 games.
Backstrom had five goals in last year’s run to the Cup — but added 18 assists. That’s more his game, right? Who cares? The Caps need this right now.
“It gives us confidence,” Backstrom said.
The kind of confidence Backstrom always had: understated.
Before the Capitals opened a power play midway through the third period, Backstrom huddled briefly with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov just inside the blue line. He then skated slowly over to defenseman John Carlson for a word, then made his way to the faceoff circle. Once there, he won the draw, muscled the puck to Kuznetsov, who slid it across to Ovechkin, who, of course, buried it.
That’s the kind of stuff we’re used to praising Backstrom for — the hands and know-how to win a draw, the stuff you barely notice given that it ended with Ovechkin’s blast.
But as these playoffs surge forward, we should remind ourselves just to appreciate what we get to watch every night: a future Hall of Famer plying his wares in ways both obvious and subtle. Who cares if anyone else takes note?
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