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Why Nicklas Backstrom's current offensive slump won't lead to a reunion with Alex Ovechkin...yet

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USA TODAY Sports

Why Nicklas Backstrom's current offensive slump won't lead to a reunion with Alex Ovechkin...yet

There’s no question who the best goal-scorer on the Caps roster is. Even at 32 years old, Alex Ovechkin remains a top-scoring threat in the league. But, if you were to ask who the best all-around offensive player on the team is, you could make a pretty convincing argument for Nicklas Backstrom.

And that’s what makes his current slump so concerning.

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Backstrom is in the midst of the longest slump of his career, seven games without a point. That slump also is affecting T.J. Oshie who plays on Backstrom’s right wing. Oshie has only two points in eight games and has not scored a goal since Oct. 20.

“I realize that I've got to be better and I've got to create more chances, produce and be one of the leading guy on the team,” Backstrom said Thursday after practice. “Just got to find a way.”

But if you ask Barry Trotz, he does not seem all that concerned. Why not? Is he just putting on a good face for the media?

No. Trotz is not concerned because while Backstrom is not lighting it up offensively, he is excelling in the one aspect that has become his top priority: defense.

“Backy has done a really good job,” Trotz said Thursday. “I know there's a lot been said about not scoring or whatever, to me it's about winning and he's had all the tough matchups while still creating good offense, hasn't got the numbers.”

Trotz went on to say that he didn’t judge Backstrom’s game based on goals and assists.

Backstrom is one of the top shut-down centers in the NHL. With less depth defensively this season for the Caps as well as all the injury to Matt Niskanen, defense has become priority No. 1 for Backstrom and in that, he has been exceptional.

Here are just a few examples of the impact Backstrom has had against top offensive players. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Backstrom played the most against Zach Hyman, William Nylander and Auston Matthews. Those three contributed only one combined goal and it was an empty-netter. Against the Edmonton Oilers, Backstrom matched up against Patrick Maroon, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Those three combined for only three points, as Draisaitl and McDavid assisted on a Maroon goal in the first period. They were held scoreless the rest of the game. Against the New York Islanders, Josh Bailey, John Tavares and Anders Lee combined for seven points, but only three of those points came at even strength.

With defense being a primary focus for Backstrom, one of the reasons his offensive production is down is because of the way he is being utilized. Currently, Backstrom is on pace for the lowest percentage of offensive zone faceoffs of his career with 44.26-percent.

Trotz was asked about the number of defensive zone draws for Backstrom and he said, “People try to avoid certain matchups so sometimes you start him there just to keep the other group off. That's the cat and mouse game that you have to play.”

But as good as Backstrom is defensively, he is still an important piece of the offense. Whether the Caps can be successful without him producing consistently is a fair question to ask.

In Backstrom’s mind, shutting down a team’s top playmakers isn’t good enough. He has to outscore them to truly be effective.

He said of playing against a team’s top line, “That's priority No. 1, but if it's 0-0 we're still kind of mad as a line. We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

That begs the question of whether we will soon see Backstrom reunited with Ovechkin. The two have always been a dominant pair in the past, but Trotz is reluctant to make that change. Given the different roles of both players this season, it would be hard to put them back on the same line.

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When asked about it, Trotz admitted that he had thought about making the move, but said the team was “Just not ready for it. I think you've got to trust the process.”And when that process involves Backstrom, you can bet Trotz will have plenty of patience.

“I don't have to tell you what I think of Nicklas Backstrom, one of the best two-way centermen in the National Hockey League and he should be a Selke candidate every year and I've said that. Right now, he's had tough matchups. … Trust me, if there's one player I don't have to worry a whole heck of a lot about, it's Nick Backstrom.”

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.

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Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.

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3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

The Capitals needed a win in the worst way and they got one, dispatching the Buffalo Sabres in dominating fashion with a 5-1 win.

Washington was locked in a tight game leading 2-0 heading into the third period when Sam Reinhart scored just 14 seconds into the period to pull Buffalo to within one. The Caps then slammed the door shut, scoring three unanswered goals to put away the Sabres.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Ovechkin: This was career game No. 983 for Ovechkin, tying him for the franchise record for most games played with Calle Johansson. Ovechkin very fittingly celebrated the occasion with two goals. The first came on a power play goal from the office, but there was no need for a one-timer on this one. The Sabres gave him all the time he needed to aim up the shot and wrist it into the top corner.

He added a second goal late off a deflection from a John Carlson shot.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov: To say the Caps have struggled at the start of games would be an understatement. In the last 18 games, Washington has held the lead after the first period only once. Kuznetsov made sure this game started off on the right foot as he scored just 50 seconds into the game. He turned on the jets in the neutral zone to turn the edge on Jason Pominville then easily skated around a weak, ill-advised challenge from Robin Lehner before flinging the puck into the yawning net.

It was the fastest goal to start a game by the Caps this season. It was just the start of what would be a four-point night for the Caps' center as he added three assists.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky had the highlight of the game with his end-to-end goal in the second period to put Washington up 2-0. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he launched himself from the defensive zone, streaked down the center of the ice and in on net to slide the puck through the Lehner's five-hole.

Look how Burakovsky was able to slice through the Sabres' defense. Buffalo had him surrounded, but his speed caught the Sabres off-guard and they were not able to recover in time to actually slow him down.