Capitals fans had to wait 258 days to see Nicklas Backstrom return to meaningful game action since his last appearance. On Thursday, Backstrom demonstrated why he remains a critical piece of the Capitals’ overarching game plan in a shootout victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in what could be a pivotal game in the playoff race.
Washington and Pittsburgh saw themselves tied at 1-1 heading into arguably the most important period of the season to date for both clubs. Five minutes into the frame, it was Backstrom who led an attack into the offensive zone for the Capitals, laid a drop pass for Marcus Johansson and cleared space by taking his own defender to the corner.
Johansson made no mistake and rifled a wrist shot over the glove of Penguins’ goalie Casey DeSmith to give the home side a 2-1 lead.
“He is so good at seeing things happen before they happen and made a terrific play, and JoJo made a nice shot,” Capitals’ head coach Peter Laviolette said of Backstrom postgame.
Thursday marked the eighth game of the season for Washington’s alternate captain, who first returned in a 1-0 victory over Columbus earlier this month. It was an arduous road back for the 35-year-old center, who underwent hip resurfacing surgery shortly after Washington’s exit from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Happy for him. He seems like he plays every game better and better,” Alex Ovechkin said postgame. “I hope he’s continuing to get better. I'm always saying he's professional. He's a pro. He knows what he's doing, and he's gonna be fine.”
Sixty-five minutes of hockey were not enough to separate Washington and Pittsburgh in Thursday’s critical battle, though.
Laviolette selected Backstrom to be Washington’s third penalty taker with the shootout score tied 1-1 after two rounds. His wrister bested DeSmith and, following Evgeni Malkin’s miss on the final shot of the shootout, the Capitals walked away victorious.
“Yeah, super fun [to see him score game-winner],” Capitals’ goalie Darcy Kuemper said of Backstrom. “He’s pretty smooth. He went down there…I had no doubt it was going in. It was nice to see him make that sweet move, good shot and get the goal.”
Even with Thursday’s shootout win, there are still 31 games remaining in the regular season and Washington’s spot in the playoffs is by no means secure. But picking up a win over Pittsburgh in their penultimate meeting of the season certainly helps.
Having Backstrom back in the lineup opens more doors for the Capitals as well, as having a veteran center along with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller in the lineup makes Laviolette’s line experimentations a bit easier. As a reward for his impact on the win, Backstrom was even given the team's customary victory rope in the locker room after the game.
“It's always good to get a chance to do the shootout and obviously nice to get a win, too,” Backstrom said. “That's all that matters. Yeah, keep grinding.”