For a player who prefers to skate in the shadows of Alex Ovechkin, it was hard not to notice just how much better the Capitals are with Nicklas Backstrom than without him.
Playing his first game for the Capitals since May 27 hip surgery, Backstrom scored the game-winning goal, assisted on two others and played key roles on both the power play and penalty kill in the Capitals’ 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night at Verizon Center.
“Our team runs off Nick when we’re at our best,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who stopped 18 of 19 shots to earn his third victory in four tries. “He covers up so many mistakes we make just by how good and smart he is and how many key minutes he eats up. Really, you can’t put a value on a guy like that.”
Actually, the Capitals put a value on Backstrom back in 2010 when they gave him a 10-year, $67 million contract. Intent on honoring that contract with the highest level of hockey possible, Backstrom elected to have hip surgery over the summer. Earlier on Saturday he said it was one of the best decisions of his career and in his first game since the surgery he looked like he was in mid-season form.
“That’s how special he is,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “When you watch a guy who hasn’t played any exhibition games and he comes into a National Hockey League game against a fast team and he looks like he never missed a beat, you realize how good he is and what he does for our team once he’s back in the lineup. It looked pretty easy for him.”
In the first period Backstrom set up T.J. Oshie for a power-play one-snipe that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead. In the second period he won several key faceoffs while the Caps killed off a 38-second 5-on-3. And in the third period Backstrom fired a shot from the half wall that went off the leg of a Carolina defenseman and past Cam Ward.
“I was a little bit lucky, to be honest with you,” Backstrom said. “I was coming into this game with the attitude just to win. That’s all I was thinking about.
“It’s always nice to be back on the ice. It’s fun to practice, but it’s obviously better to play games.”
Backstrom also assisted on John Carlson’s power-play goal and could have had a third assist if Cam Ward had not made an acrobatic save on Marcus Johansson on a 2-on-1 in the second period.
Backstrom finished the night with 15:21 of ice time and, of course, a big smile.
“I feel all right,” he said. “I’m not sore or anything, so that’s a good thing. Hopefully I can get a little better in the next couple games.”
The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks probably hope not.
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