For months, the Washington Capitals were left to wonder how things would have been different with a healthy Nicklas Backstrom. The high-scoring center was cruising toward the All-Star Game and a 90-point campaign until an elbow to the head changed the course of the season.
For three months, the Capitals treaded water and waited for Backstrom to get back. Now he’s healthy and starting to flash pre-injury form.
“It’s good sign for us and a bad sign for different teams,” captain Alex Ovechkin said.
The Boston Bruins, Washington’s opening-round opponent, will be the first to find out. Backstrom appears to be performing at the level he was before Rene Bourque, then with Calgary, delivered the hit Jan. 3 that resulted in a concussion.
“Yeah, it’s crazy. The past few games you can tell he’s his old self again,” defenseman John Carlson said. “It didn’t take him too long, but I guess he’s making those plays where it’s like, ‘How does he do it?’ That’s the way he needs to play.”
Backstrom was hard on himself throughout this recovery, lamenting his inability to get his timing totally right. Meanwhile, teammates laughed that off with the excitement that if the 24-year-old center wasn’t feeling right about his game, that could mean good things to come.
It all seemed to click Saturday at the New York Rangers when Backstrom picked up his first goal and assist since returning. Just one night, but it was a glimpse of magic. Coach Dale Hunter said it was without a doubt Backstrom’s best game of the four during this comeback.
“For him, getting that goal and also an assist, for his confidence I think is a big thing,” forward Brooks Laich said. “This was his fourth game [and] for a talented guy like that that’s enough of a workload to get back into the swing of things. So he’s going to be a very vital player for us.”
Backstrom said he’s hopefully 100 percent now, at least with conditioning and timing.
“Felt a little better last game, and we won, too, and we played a solid game, the whole team, so I can build off this and keep going,” he said.
Even if he isn’t totally his old self yet, Backstrom facilitates the Caps offense in a way that no one else can. The Bruins recognize that.
“Backstrom certainly is one of their best players, if not their best sometimes. He’s missed a lot of the year so you don’t have the hundred-percent Backstrom, but the lesser percent of Backstrom is still a really good player,” Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli said. “He’s able to slow the game down a bit and distribute pucks to their shooters. They have their skill, and he’s going to enable their skill and their shooters.”
Backstrom is probably one of the top-five passers in the league when healthy and rolling along, but his all-around game includes the ability to score and even kill penalties.
He probably won’t be asked to step in on the penalty kill against the big Bruins, but one moment in the Rangers game could go a long way toward showing Backstrom is mentally ready for this series. Jawing with New York captain Ryan Callahan, Backstrom wasn’t afraid to exchange shoves and some jabs to the face.
Backstrom admitted being a little worried about physicality his first three games back in the lineup after the 40-game concussion absence. Not anymore.
“Nicky’s never shied away from contact,” Laich said. “He’s very solid on his skates and a lot of times surprises guys. He can lay a shoulder into somebody and knock guys off the puck. So he plays in those dirty areas in the corners and the scrums. He’s just very slippery and very hard to hit.”
And hard to stop, as the Bruins might soon find out.