As the Caps look to rebound from their Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lighting, their lineup for Game 4 will get a major boost as Nicklas Backstrom will return after missing four games with an upper-body injury.
Backstrom suffered the injury in Game 5 of the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He left the game after taking a shot to the hand area from Justin Schultz. The exact nature and extent of the injury are not known as the team has only described it as "upper-body."
The injury kept Backstrom out of the series-clinching Game 6 in Pittsburgh and out of all three games against Tampa Bay. Game 4 will mark his first ever Eastern Conference Final appearance.
And it could not have come at a better. time.
After taking a commanding 2-0 series lead with two wins on the road, the Capitals dropped Game 3. A win in Game 4 will ensure they keep a stranglehold on the series with a 3-1 lead. A loss will tie the series at two making it a best of three against a resurgent Lightning team marking Game 4 as a critical point in the series.
In 11 games this postseason, he has recorded three goals and 13 points, including the overtime winner in Game 5 of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Based on warmups, however, it looks as if he will not take his customary spot on the second line. Lars Eller, who has played well in Backstrom's stead, will continue to center that line. Backstrom instead moves down to center the third line alongside Chandler Stephenson and Brett Connolly.
Stephenson, a natural center, provides the third line with someone who can take faceoffs should Backstrom not be ready in that aspect yet.
With Backstrom in, here are what the forward lines looked like during pregame warmup:
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Chandler Stephenson - Nicklas Backstrom - Brett Connolly
Devante Smith-Pelly - Jay Beagle - Andre Burakovsky
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Will Nicklas Backstrom suit up for Game 4 against the Lightning on Thursday night?
The answer to that question remains unclear following the team’s morning skate, after which he was deemed, once again, a game-time decision by Coach Barry Trotz.
But we can say this without hesitation: Backstrom appears as close to returning to the Caps’ lineup as he’s looked since being struck on the right hand by a slap shot in Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series.
Trotz was quick to offer that Backstrom has not yet received medical clearance (as of 11:30 a.m., anyway). Clearance, though, can come at any time ahead of puck-drop at Capital One Arena.
Here’s what we observed Thursday morning and what it could mean:
- Backstrom did not take the first line rush, but he rotated in on subsequent rushes. During Sunday and Tuesday’s a.m. skates, he stood off to the side and passed the puck with Trotz.
- Backstrom did some light battle drills with teammates. That’s typically the final hurdle a player must clear before the team’s training staff clears a player to return.
- He took all of the first team power play reps.
- The star center did not stay on the ice for additional skill and/or conditioning work. Instead, he exited the ice with the players who will suit up tonight.
Does any of that mean Backstrom is definitely going to play? No, it doesn’t. What it does mean is this: when Trotz labeled him a game-time, he probably meant it this time.
If Backstrom returns, Trotz would have to juggle his forward combos. It also means someone would have to come out.
But first things first.
“It would be pretty cool,” Alex Ovechkin said of Backstrom’s potential return. “We’ll see. He wants it. He wants to be part of our success. He’s our best center. He’s our leader and we all love him. But we’ll see what happens.”
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Andre Burakovsky returned to practice in a non-contact jersey on Wednesday and, in the words of Coach Barry Trotz, has been upgraded from day-to-day to week-to-week.
Burakovsky was not permitted to speak to reporters after practice but he did not seem to be overly encumbered by the upper-body injury that has sidelined him since early in the first round. Burakovsky has been making steady progress and his return to the lineup could be sooner rather than later
Trotz said Burakovsky will accompany the team to Tampa, where the Caps and Lightning open the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday.
Nicklas Backstrom will also travel with the team, though he did not practice on Tuesday. He’s been out since Game 5 due to an upper-body injury.
“He’s working out and getting the therapy he needs,” Trotz said, adding that Backstrom is still considered day-to-day.
Trotz wouldn’t say whether he expects either player to suit up for Game 1.
The Caps are slated to practice Thursday morning before departing for Tampa. Afterward, more information on the readiness (or lack thereof) of both forwards figures to be available.
Burakovsky was not assigned to a line during Wednesday’s session and he didn’t take all of his usual reps. Backstrom’s spot in the middle of the second line, meanwhile, was occupied again by Lars Eller.
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