CAPITAL ONE ARENA — It was 11 years ago now, a lifetime in a hockey career. Nicklas Backstrom was a baby-faced Swede struggling in the face of big expectations during his rookie year.
So much has changed for Backstrom since. He has a longtime partner, Liza Berg, and two children, Haley and Vince. He has a Stanley Cup. Back then, on Nov. 23, 2007, his 20th birthday, all of that was a distant dream.
But Backstrom had talent and pedigree as a No. 4 overall draft pick and a vision for how his future would go. Playing higher in the lineup under Bruce Boudreau, hired as the interim coach just the day before, Backstrom set up two goals and scored the game winner in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers.
It is arguably the goal that kicked off Washington’s Rock the Red era, which culminated, finally, in the organization’s first Stanley Cup last June.
“In Philly, right? I scored the OT winner there,” Backstrom said on Friday after a 3-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings. “Was that my second goal? That’s right. What a memory.”
It was indeed Backstrom’s second NHL goal in his 22nd game. For much of his first two months in the NHL he was playing on the third or fourth lines, trying desperately to earn the trust of Glen Hanlon and a coaching staff that was fired on Thanksgiving Day.
Eleven years to the day, on his 31stbirthday Friday afternoon, Backstrom is still here. He had the primary assist on Tom Wilson’s goal in the second period of the eventual 3-1 win against the Red Wings
Backstrom is now just one point shy of tying Peter Bondra for the second most points in Capitals history at 825. He recorded his 200th goal last season and this season reached 600 assists and 800 points. It’s already been a year of many milestones. So how does 31 sound?
“It’s terrible,” Backstrom deadpanned after the game. “No - it’s great. I got a lot of cake this morning so I’m happy.”
Backstrom should be smiling. He has 12 points in Washington’s past 11 games (four goals, eight assists). His team jumped into first place in the Metropolitan Division with the victory over the Red Wings. Backstrom is now tied for eighth in the league in assists (19) and 20th in points (25).
Wilson’s goal tied the game 1-1 at 12:13 of the second period. And two third-period goals off the rush by defenseman Michal Kempny at 6:38 and Ovechkin at 8:34 of the third period put Washington ahead for good.
The Caps (12-7-3, 27 points) have won four games in a row and five of six despite missing top-six forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie to upper-body injuries.
It’s a long way from that afternoon game 11 years ago in Philadelphia when Backstrom turned 20. The Capitals entered that game 6-14-1. The crowds at home were sparse. They hadn’t made the Stanley Cup playoffs in four years.
Backstrom had just one assist during a five-game losing streak where thousands of patrons chanted “Fire Hanlon!” over and over in a brutal 5-1 loss to the then-Atlanta Thrashers on Nov. 21. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe it. General manager George McPhee put Hanlon out of his misery the next morning, Thanksgiving Da y.
Boudreau arrived from AHL affiliate Hershey and provided the fresh start that Backstrom and the Capitals desperately needed. They would finish that season on a 37-17-7 tear. By January huge crowds were piling into the arena for mid-week games against Edmonton.
Washington won 11 of its final 12 games to clinch the Southeast Division title and a playoff berth on a memorable last day of the regular season when the building was dressed all in red and the Capitals were well on their way. They have missed the playoffs just once since.
And it arguably all started with that Backstrom goal in Philadelphia. Ovechkin spun up the right wing after a turnover, fired a shot on goal and Backstrom was there for the rebound, waiting out the goalie with characteristic patience before lifting it over an outstretched glove for the winner.
Since that day 11 years ago, Washington is 513-255-101 with 1,127 standings points. It is best record in the NHL during that stretch. The NHL’s most under-appreciated star has been here through all of it, including the Cup, the parade, the celebration last summer, and has more to go yet. He’s just 31, after all.
“It goes fast,” Backstrom said. “We used to talk about it sometimes. Time flies. We’re just enjoying ourselves playing good hockey and now - on the next game.”
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