“I think you saw a few more guys out for the optional skate today because of that reason, because they wanted to get out there and skate with Nicky a little bit,” Alzner said with a big smile. “Everybody gets real excited when he’s out there.”
No one was more excited than Backstrom himself, finally cleared for full participation in Caps practices with no restrictions. That means contact and everything, a significant step as he hopes to return from a concussion suffered Jan. 3.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for 2½ months. I’m kind of happy right now,” Backstrom said. “It’s good to practice with the guys. It feels pretty good out there. I haven’t been skating long, but it feels all right right now.”
This was indeed a banner day for Backstrom and the Capitals. It was his first full team practice since Jan. 6 in San Jose, Calif., and an even bigger sign of progress than March 13 when he returned to the ice for solo skating.
Backstrom has been symptom-free since then and has felt good since returning from Sweden for a mental-health break in mid-March.
“When I was skating a little harder and harder every day, it was getting better every day,” Backstrom said. “That’s what helps me: Start skating. That’s a point I really felt I was good.”
The 24-year-old skated alone, with a few teammates in informal workouts or with strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish for 10 of the past 11 days. He kept getting ramped up in time and intensity, culminating in Saturday’s positive news.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It’s good sign for us. Everybody knows we miss him,” captain Alex Ovechkin said the morning after the Caps blew a three-goal lead to lose in overtime to the Winnipeg Jets. “He’s that kind of guy we need right now.”
Backstrom has missed 37 games yet is still fourth on the team in points with 42. With 13 goals and 29 assists, he was on pace for his first career All-Star appearance and was without a doubt Washington’s Most Valuable Player.
“The beginning of the season he was probably one of the best players in the league, if not the best player in the league. He was playing lights out for us,” Alzner said. “That’s what happens; you kind of forget about him for a little bit because he hasn’t been in the lineup. But he is a massive part of this team that we would love to have and need to have.”
But trainer Greg Smith said the Caps are following NHL protocol, which requires Backstrom to undergo and pass neuropsychological testing before getting cleared to play by doctors. There is no timetable for his returning to game action, though Backstrom and coach Dale Hunter said they would love for that to happen before the end of the regular season.
For now, conditioning is the issue.
“It feels like you’re back in training camp. It takes a little time,” Backstrom said. “If you give me a couple more practices, I don’t know how long, but we’ll see. Right now, I can tell it feels good, and we’ll see what happens.”
Jay Beagle needed a week-and-a-half from this stage to game action in December, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby needed over a month in October and November. With concussions, it’s impossible to know how long it will take Backstrom to be 100 percent.
“It’s hard for him right now. He didn’t skate, he didn’t practice probably [for] two months,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know how good he’ll be. We’ll see.”
Across the board, the Capitals insist they won’t rush Backstrom back into the lineup, despite the tightness of the playoff race; they are tied for eighth in the Eastern Cofnerence. Hunter figures Backstrom is “chomping at the bit” to play, and he is, but he’s not going to be irresponsible about this.
“I want to be back as soon as possible, but you’ve got to be careful and make sure you’re a hundred percent before you go back because you don’t want to get any setbacks,” Backstrom said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to and hope that I can be back as soon as possible. That’s my goal.”