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11 years after the goal that started it all, Nicklas Backstrom celebrates another birthday with another win

11 years after the goal that started it all, Nicklas Backstrom celebrates another birthday with another win

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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The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

No team can make it far in the playoffs without good goaltending. That's what made the news of Ilya Samsonov's injury so tough for the Capitals. Sure, they still have Braden Holtby, but let's face it, it's been a bad season. Does he even still have it in him to lead the team in the postseason? After three round-robin games, the answer is an emphatic yes.

In a round-robin in which there were seemingly few positives for Washington, Holtby was one of them. He was the team's best player in the round-robin and he capped it off with 30 saves on 31 shots against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, the team's lone win.

Holtby looks like a completely different goalie than the one who managed just a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 regular-season games and that's because he is. The pause to the NHL season allowed Holtby time off to reset his game that he would not have in a normal season and he took advantage.

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"Put a lot of work in the last couple months and had to fix a few things and work on a few things over the break to strengthen up," Holtby said, "And every game we played here you get a little more stamina and more and more comfortable."

It is pretty remarkable that Holtby was able to improve his game as much as he seems to have done considering that for much of that time, he could not even get on the ice. Yet, as the team prepares for the playoffs, goaltending no longer seems to be an issue. The loss of Samsonov means that the team is in trouble should Holtby struggle or get injured, but in terms of the starting netminder, Holtby is once again the guy. While that may have made fans nervous in January, fans can now be comfortable with that considering Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season.

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Caps and Islanders coaches downplay the personal matchup in Stanley Cup playoff series: 'It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden'

Caps and Islanders coaches downplay the personal matchup in Stanley Cup playoff series: 'It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden'

As the Capitals and New York Islanders prepare to square off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, all eyes will be on one matchup. It's not about the two goalies or how one defensive pairing matchups up against an offensive line, this matchup is off the ice. The storyline of this series is the men behind the bench, Todd Reirden and his predecessor, Barry Trotz.

Trotz was the head coach in Washington from 2014 to 2018 and led the Caps to the Stanley Cup in 2018. Reirden was on Trotz's staff as an associate coach in charge of the defense. Following the 2018 season, Trotz resigned and was hired as the head coach in New York, taking with him assistant coach Lane Lambert and goalie coach Mitch Korn. Reirden was hired as head coach of the Caps in the wake of Trotz's departure.

"It'll be a great challenge because I know the people over there," Trotz said of the series.

"Obviously we were able to accomplish something amazing together and that's something that you'll never forget as a staff," Reirden said. "That's never going to go away. It's unique now being on opposite benches and it has been."

When a team plays against its former head coach, comparisons between the two coaches are unavoidable. But even if the fans and the media look at this series as a commentary on the two coaches, the two men in question certainly do not.

"It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden or any of those type of things," Reirden said. "It's going to be a team effort."

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They also downplayed any sort of advantage knowing each other may give them in the series.

"You've spent some time with a lot of their players, there's a lot of new players," Trotz said. "It just gives me a little insight on some of their tendencies, that's all."

The core in Washington may be the same, but there are a number of new faces on the roster who came after Trotz. The top-six on offense is the same, but players like Carl Hagelin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd all came after Trotz. Defensively, the team added Nick Jensen, Radko Gudas and Brenden Dillon.  Jonas Siegenthaler was in the organization, but did not make his NHL debut until the 2018-19 season.

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But even if they do not want to admit it, the familiarity between the coaches and players undeniably adds a different dynamic to the series.

The Caps know what kind of a coach Trotz is and how his teams like to play. Likewise, Trotz knows the level of talent on the roster in Washington so he knows the challenge that awaits the Islanders in the first round.

"They've got a lot of star power and they've won a championship," Trotz said. "They're well-equipped in a lot of areas, so the biggest challenge is to play them even and play them hard and they'll do the same because I know a lot about that group."

Trotz also added, "I think it will be a hell of a series."

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