Maybe you have this week off from work, and you don’t have to deal with the person in the next cubicle, the guy who breathes too heavily or the woman who, without invitation, borrows your things. It’s a respite, and thank goodness. These people, man. They may be essential to your success, but darn it if they don’t occasionally make you want to stick needles in your eyes.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom just had three days apart, a Christmas break for the Washington Capitals and the rest of the NHL. Such space is welcome and necessary because they have, essentially, shared a cubicle for more than a decade. That comes with projects worked on together. That comes with a bond that can't be broken. That comes with wanting to pull each other's hair out.
Backstrom first assisted on an Ovechkin goal on Nov. 16, 2007, and since then, 222 more Backstrom passes have resulted in 222 more Ovechkin goals. Ovechkin first assisted on a Backstrom goal a bit more than a month later: Dec. 20, the first of 85 times he set up his centerman. That’s 307 goals created together, people. That’s a lot of time in each other’s cubicle.
“We see each other every day,” Backstrom said last week.
They are, by this point, Washington’s athletic version of an old married couple. They share jokes during pre-practice skates, card games on overnight flights, frustration in each other’s games, exultation in each other’s achievements. Their personalities are drastically different. Their legacies are completely intertwined.
“They’re both Hall of Famers, in my opinion,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “But they’re different people.”
More than any two teammates in Washington, Ovechkin and Backstrom are linked — by longevity, by what they have accomplished, by what they haven't. The only pro athlete in the District who predates either of them is Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals, and none of his teammates arrived within four years of his 2005 debut. Plus, the Nat with the second-longest tenure here — Stephen Strasburg — is a starting pitcher. Zimmerman is a first baseman. They're completely different animals inhabiting completely different territory.
Ovechkin and Backstrom are joined in every way. They not only play on the same team, but they share the same responsibility: producing offense. More than that: Since Dec. 8, 2007 — when then-coach Bruce Boudreau first moved the rookie Backstrom up to Ovechkin’s line — they have skated on the ice at the same time far more frequently than they haven’t.
“Basically, when we have a conversation just once,” Ovechkin said, “and we start working and start clicking, it’s easy for us.”
This is relevant now, because 15 games ago, the Capitals were a .500 team struggling to find an identity. Trotz played the one card he held on to for the first quarter of the season, the one he knew was there all along: reuniting Ovechkin, the goal-scoring left winger, with Backstrom, the wizardly passer, on the top line. The result: 11 wins in the first 13 games, 30 points between the two of them, and an unlikely climb to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings.
But this isn’t a story of two long-lost pals who were desperate for their own reunion. Like any relationship entering its second decade, it’s complicated.
“Sometimes, you get mad at him,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes, he get mad at me. When he is hard on me and I’m hard on him, it’s normal. There are moments in the game when I disagree with what he thinks and he disagrees with what I think. But it’s a normal process. We enjoy it.”
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There’s just no way to endure this long — 749 games played together in the 11 seasons since Backstrom’s debut in the 2007-08 opener — and not have some bumps. They’re the only two players who have been here during the Capitals’ rise with the original young guns, through the Presidents’ Trophies, through coaches Glen Hanlon and Boudreau and Dale Hunter and Adam Oates and now Trotz, through the playoff disappointments. Now only they remain for the current rebuild.
“When you’ve been together for a while, and you travel together, you play together, you do everything for the most part together, it’s no different than a married couple,” Trotz said. “Sometimes, the odd road trip — a guys’ trip or a girls’ trip — is good for the marriage. You get into a little bit of a rut, be it on the ice as teammates, and you get into a rut sometimes as just friends, because you spend so much time, and you’re like, ‘You’re just starting to irritate me now.’”
When they first started playing together, Backstrom was 19, Ovechkin 22. They had young teammates in Alexander Semin and Mike Green and Brooks Laich. Now both are married. Backstrom has two young kids. “He has dogs,” Backstrom said of Ovechkin.
“It used to be we was hanging out together much because obviously we were single, young,” Ovechkin said, “and right now it’s different.”
We like to envision the teams we root for as happy, cogent units. Everyone wears the same uniform. Everyone wants the same things. Everyone gets along. Kumbaya.
What Ovechkin and Backstrom have, they say, is a friendship, for sure. But to get the most out of each other, to get the most out of themselves, they occasionally must say things other co-workers could find unsettling.
"I think they're so comfortable with each other that they can pretty much tell each other anything and the other one will understand why and move on," said winger T.J. Oshie, who has in the past been teamed with the two stars but now plays on the second line. "It kind of gets like that when you play with someone for a long time."
When Trotz began the season by playing Ovechkin with center Evgeny Kuznetsov rather than Backstrom, the coach said he was trying to make sure, should there be an injury, that he had a variety of combinations with familiarity playing with each other. By way of explanation one day on "The Junkies" morning radio show, Trotz said Ovechkin is "just a difficult player to play with."
“Everybody takes that the wrong way,” Trotz said last week.
Well, uh, how should they take it?
“ ‘O’ is a player who can get himself in these little windows,” Trotz said, “and if you don’t get that puck to him there, then that window goes away.”
Trotz’s strategy: Teach other passers, namely Kuznetsov, what it’s like to create chances for a player who needs only the slightest of openings. Left unsaid: Backstrom knows how to do that better than anyone.
“If that puck is delivered in that little window,” Trotz said, “it’s magical how that puck is in the net.”
“Probably the best pure passer in the world,” Oshie said, “and the best goal scorer in the world.”
So there they are, tied together again.
“We know our tendencies,” Backstrom said. “I know where he’s at, and he knows where I’m at.”
For a decade, we have known where they’re both at: side by side on the Capitals, Ovechkin to Backstrom’s left, locked and loaded, waiting for Backstrom’s pass. Trotz has a warning: At some point, he’ll separate them again. No problem.
“Sometimes,” Backstrom said, “you just need to get away from each other for a bit.”
They were away from each other at the start of the season, and they were away from each other for Christmas. They are back together again on their same old line, in their same old cubicle. It’s hard to think that’s not the best way for the Capitals’ two best players to play out the rest of the season, if not the rest of their careers.