Nicklas Backstrom is about as mild-mannered as they come for the Washington Capitals. Forward Troy Brouwer praised him for having a “level head” and insisted the star center won’t do anything to jeopardize his teammates moving forward in their first-round series against the Boston Bruins.
But in losing his cool, Backstrom already has. His cross-check to Rich Peverley’s face at the horn Monday earned him a one-game suspension and plenty of regret.
“I did what I had to do. I think it was stupid on my part. I’ve got to deal with it now,” a remorseful Backstrom said.
Now the Capitals are without the services of their best passer and arguably their best player for Thursday’s Game 4 at Verizon Center trailing the series 2-1.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news, if the Caps want to take it as such, is that they’re used to life without Backstrom from his 40-game concussion absence.
“We definitely love having him in the lineup. But he was out for a while, and we found ways to win and learned how to play kind of a little bit of a different style,” forward Jay Beagle said. “It’s something that happens throughout the season every year is a lot of your star players go down … and you got to find ways to win without them.”
Defenseman Karl Alzner acknowledged, “It’s not going to be pretty,” but not much about this series has been. Backstrom’s cross-check to the face was the third by a Capital, according to Bruins coach Claude Julien, but the first to merit a suspension.
“Nicky had a tough night and was a target of a lot of stuff after the whistle, and I guess he was defending himself,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “Can’t blame a guy that’s been out 40 games with a head issue wanting to defend himself and saying enough is enough.”
Amid a postseason that now includes nine suspensions and a handful of fines, the NHL is trying to tell players enough is enough, especially with shots to the head. Coach Dale Hunter claimed Backstrom was defending himself, by league vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan confirmed the 24-year-old was the aggressor, saying his conduct was “excessive and reckless.”
Perhaps that’s why a few players didn’t take offense to Backstrom getting a one-game ban.
“Am I surprised? Not really. See for yourself, it doesn’t look good,” Alzner said. “I haven’t heard any of the reasoning why it’s a game, why it’s not more games, why it’s no games. I haven’t heard any of the explanation. That’s kind of what we were expecting: match penalty.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin, who served a three-game suspension for a hit earlier this season, took issue with the ruling.
“Sometimes you think it’s the right decision, sometimes it’s not, sometimes you want to laugh,” he said. “So right now, I think it’s kind of a bad decision. But there is nothing you can do.”
The team put out a statement disagreeing with the suspension, which read, in part: “This has been a competitive and physical series, and we do not understand why a suspension was imposed in this case while other incidents in this series have not been reviewed.”
As Bruins forward Milan Lucic indicated, this series has been “pretty light” with nasty elements compared to others. But the animosity started to pick up for Game 3, and Hunter accused Boston of targeting Backstrom’s head, a claim Julien vehemently denied.
But that’s a muted concern for Game 4 with Backstrom out of the lineup. Knuble likely will return to the lineup, bringing his Stanley Cup-winning experience and more size and toughness.
Missing Backstrom, Ovechkin said the Caps need to be tighter and “play for each other.” Just like they did during his three-month absence, except with much more at stake.
“I think everybody is stepping up,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “I don’t think there’s many steps left. Everyone knows what is on the line here for us.”