If you didn't know the story of how Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom became teammates, you might not believe it. If you saw it in a movie, you would dismiss it as a Hollywood fairytale. But it happened.
On Jun 24, 2006, Ovechkin joined then general manager George McPhee on stage at the draft and announced the Capitals' selection with the fourth overall pick:
"The Washington Capitals are happy to pick Nicklas Backstrom."
And just like that, one of the greatest tandems in NHL history was born. Now, 16 years later, Ovechkin and Backstrom will play their 1,000th game together Tuesday against the Calgary Flames.
"The organization has been fortunate to have two character people and high-skilled people that complement each other as well as they two do," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "Personality-wise, on and off the ice, their skillsets are a perfect match for each other."
Outside of Washington, the team's success over the past 10-15 years is easy to dub as the "Ovechkin era." Capitals fans know, however, that Ovechkin and Backstrom have been linked together throughout this era in a way that makes them impossible to separate.
Ovechkin and Backstrom are not the first pair of superstars to ever play together. The list of all-time greats who have teamed up is a long one, but so is the list of superstar players who failed to make it work. Many times what we see those tandems accomplish on the ice is limited by off-ice factors whether it's players arguing over roles, a locker room split behind different leaders or even just one player not being able to check his ego at the door.
If the Caps were going to make this work, it had to work in the locker room. Luckily for Washington, Ovechkin and Backstrom are a perfect balance.
“The right kind of personalities," former teammate Mike Knuble said, "You have kind of a one and a two that mesh together. When you’re both superstars, sometimes the locker room can only be so big to handle personalities. That’s where they meshed together, and good for them. They realized, ‘Hey, we work together and we’re both going to have great careers.’ It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they realized that pretty quickly."
The fact that Ovechkin and Backstrom are friends is great, but it's what they do on the ice that makes them special. In that sense, their playing styles seem to complement each other just as well as their personalities do.
"They’re two of the top players in the game," Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. "They have been for a long time. And so, one of them has a skill set to make plays that is one of the best in the league and the other one has the ability to deliver the puck to the net. He’s arguably the best in the league. It’s a good combination and a good tandem."
Pairing an elite playmaking center with arguably the greatest goal-scorer of all time is a formula for success and the two players quickly developed chemistry when they were finally on the same line early into the Bruce Boudreau era. That chemistry has led to Backstrom contributing 274 assists on goals by Ovechkin and an additional 106 assists from Ovechkin to set up Backstrom.
While Ovechkin frequently takes the spotlight, there is no denying Backstrom's incredible skill that makes him one of the top playmakers in the league.
"Everybody knows his skill on the ice is tremendous," Ovechkin said. "The vision, plays that he can make. He makes different players better than they are, even me."
Backstrom is a great player in his own right, but it is hard to get out from under the shadow of one of the greatest to ever play the game.
"I've never seen a player that's so hungry for things," Backstrom said of Ovechkin. "Just scoring goals, hitting, making plays. I think he's not that vocal in the locker room, but he shows out there on the ice. When O's on, there's no one stopping him and the rest of the team just follows him. So I think he's got that energy to feed off everyone else on the team."
Backstrom added, "I've been fortunate to be playing with him for this many years and be watching closely. It's been great."
But even a tandem as great as Ovechkin and Backstrom has had its struggles over the years.
As the team continued to fall short in the playoffs, the burden of blame and unmet expectations was often placed on the shoulders of the two superstars. From 2008 to 2017, Washington made the playoffs nine times, but failed to advance past the second round.
That changed in 2018 when the team finally defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in six games to hoist the Cup for the first time in franchise history.
"It's kind of relief," Ovechkin said.
As captain, Ovechkin received the Cup first. When it was time to pass it up, there was no question who the second player to hold the Cup would be.
Fittingly, Ovechkin remained by Backstrom's side during his lap and the two even held it up together at one point.
It was a moment of relief, a moment of celebration, a moment of triumph. But it was also a moment of validation. Ovechkin and Backstrom were not just two good players with individual accolades and no team success. They were no longer part of the ignominious list of the greatest teams and players to never win a Cup. Finally, they were champions.
"It was more relief and 'yes we did it' than happiness to start," Backstrom said. "It was more like, yes we can finally breathe."
It was a championship that confirmed what fans in Washington already knew, that they were one of the greatest tandems of all-time without the asterisk that comes with falling to win.
In Capitals franchise history, Ovechkin ranks first in games played (1,252) and Backstrom ranks second (1,035). Ovechkin ranks first in goals (764), Backstrom ranks fourth (262). Backstrom ranks first in assists (735), Ovechkin ranks second (624). Ovechkin ranks first in points (1,388), Backstrom ranks second (997). Both players also brought a Cup to Washington as champions.
Ovechkin and Backstrom were linked the day Ovechkin announced Backstrom as the team's pick in the draft. From then on, it was not the Ovechkin era in Washington, but the Ovechkin and Backstrom era, and it's been one that has now lasted for 1,000 games.
"They’re going to be tied together forever, and rightfully so," Knuble said. "They both would’ve been great players on their own, but to have them together, they both benefitted. It’s great that nobody got too big for the other guy and they were smart enough through the years to work together. It produced one of the best tandems in the NHL’s history.”