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Backstrom looks like he's in mid-season form

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Backstrom looks like he's in mid-season form

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.”

RELATED: Hip-hip hooray - Backstrom lifts Caps over Canes

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.

MORE CAPITALS: Trotz unwilling to break up shut-down line

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Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

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Twitter/City of Las Vegas

Las Vegas changes iconic welcome sign to include no capital letters

The Washington Capitals official #ALLCAPS hashtag started in 2017 during a Caps-Penguins game after the Pittsburgh Penguins' official Twitter account decided to tweet in all lowercase letters during the game. 

Now, as the Caps look to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final ahead of Game 1 Monday, Vegas has followed suit by changing their iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign to include only lowercase letters, a jab at the Capitals #ALLCAPS.

Additionally, the City's official Twitter account has changed their handle to "the city of las vegas" without any capital letters and the hashtag #nocaps.

It will be interesting to see how the Capitals' official Twitter will respond...

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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