Word came through to Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin on Wednesday morning that they we would be back together that evening. They had not started a game alongside each other on Washington’s top line yet this season. They didn’t close last season together, either. The duo has shared the ice since 2007. They had never been split like this.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz decided to change that Wednesday. He had been discussing the idea with the rest of the coaching staff for a while. They knew the Capitals needed juice from somewhere, so they turned to what will end as one of the organization’s epic pairings. Backstrom and Ovechkin, two names that have helped define a generation of Capitals hockey, were put back together as the lead scoring line for the club. The question going forward is if the Ovechkin-Backstrom pairing is an one-night jolt or a lasting formula for an up-and-down team.
Ovechkin rapidly shifted his skates back and forth during the Canadian and American national anthems before play began Wednesday night. He took three heaving deeps breaths when “land of the free” was belted out, then sprinted toward the goal behind him, a place that had not been kind in any arena the last two weeks.
His recent work was not representative of his legacy. Ovechkin went seven games without a goal prior to Wednesday, when he was sprung loose by passing that started with Backstrom. His early season burst of seven goals in the first two games seemed more fluke than reboot by the middle of November. November 12 in Edmonton, Ovechkin spent 23:48 on the ice. He did not have a shot on goal.
The next night, he uncorked eight in a 6-3 loss. Still no results. Once he glided behind the Ottawa Senators’ defense Wednesday night, Ovechkin was able to find a clean way to score again. With just five seconds left in the second period, his wrist shot zipped just under the crossbar. Goal 14, finally.
Backstrom met Ovechkin near the Capitals’ bench to celebrate. They had done this so many times before, spending a jovial decade together when one of the best scorers in league history put together another power-play goal or delivered a burst of speed followed by a quick shot. Ovechkin’s 572 goals are just one behind Mike Bossy for 21st all-time.
Not spending much time together recently had reduced such commemorations. Backstrom and Ovechkin had played roughly 16 minutes together this season before they were paired Wednesday night. Capitals coach Barry Trotz contorted a saying when explaining the premise behind how disbanding a union can reaffirm its strength.
“The line that is used, ‘If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be,’” Trotz said.
Something like that.
This combination was reunited because of stagnant offense rather than the pitter-patter of hearts. Both Backstrom and Ovechkin said they were not surprised when informed they would be brought back together. A shuffling needed to occur, especially with Andre Burakovsky out, and it started at the top.
“It’s totally up to the coaching staff,” Backstrom said. “Sometimes you switch it up. We didn’t finish the season playing with each other last year. We played me, [T.J. Oshie] and [Burakovsky]; we worked well. Maybe they wanted to try that for a bit, then Burky got hurt. Different kind of reasons, I think. Overall, I think the last couple games we’ve been stuck with creating scoring chances.”
Trotz explained that playing with Ovechkin delivers a two-fold issue. First, he is going to demand space-freeing attention. So, whoever is with him should have room to operate. Though, his unique scoring ability also means his linemates need to have an understanding that Ovechkin can do things that others can not.
“He’s the greatest goal-scorer in his generation,” Trotz said. “I’ve said that many times. And, you need a very intelligent player [to play with him]. You have to get used to playing with him. When he gets into those areas — I’m not talking on the power play, but on the five-on-five — he gets into those tight windows and he can score in those tight windows, which any other player can’t.”
Trotz also added an anvil to the line. Tom Wilson, purveyor of on-ice pugilism, penalty minutes and, at times, questionable tactics, was on the other side. A combination of Ovechkin and Wilson running the flanks delivers force on top of offensive possibilities from an Ovechkin-Backstrom pairing.
“That’s a big line,” Trotz said. “Think about Ovi on one side and Tom on the other, and [Backstrom] doesn’t play a light game. That line has a lot of weight to it, and a lot of bang to it when both those wingers are banging. I thought Tom was able to keep pucks alive. He energized the line. He was a net presence. He was a physical presence. He was an emotional presence. He did all that. Backi and Ovi do what they do.”
Expect to see the trio together again Friday when the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning arrives in the District. The Capitals were in search of a boost. They found it for a night Wednesday by reuniting their longtime stars.
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