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Season in review: Nicklas Backstrom


Season in review: Nicklas Backstrom

Throughout the coming weeks, Capitals Insider Chuck Gormley will evaluate the 2014-15 performance of each player on the Caps roster. One breakdown will occur every day in alphabetical order. Today: Nicklas Backstrom

Position: Center

Shoots: Left

Age: 27 [turns 28 Nov. 23]

Ht/Wt: 6-1, 205

Games: 82

Goals: 18

Assists: 60

Points: 78

Penalty minutes: 40

Plus-Minus: Plus-5

Average Ice Time: 20:31

Contract Status: 5 years remaining on a 10-year, $67 million contract [$6.7 million cap hit, $6.5 million salary in 2015-16]

Strengths: Got an hour? From his on-ice work habits and off-ice leadership to his ability to play in every situation and lead the NHL in assists, Backstrom is a coach’s dream. Maybe that’s why Capitals coach Barry Trotz spent much of the season trumpeting Backstrom as an NHL All-Star candidate [he was snubbed for the fifth time], a Selke Trophy finalist [snubbed again] and even an MVP consideration [strike three]. Despite his lack of recognition around the NHL, Backstrom enjoyed one of his strongest seasons in his eighth year in Washington, finishing first in the league in assists [60] and sixth in points [78] while improving his plus-minus from a minus-20 to a plus-5. Backstrom was so good in his 5-on-5 play – 45 of his 78 points came at even strength – that Trotz gave him more ice time than any other Caps forward. In fact, this season was the first time in his NHL career that Backstrom logged more ice time [20:31] than Alex Ovechkin [20:19]. The biggest reason, of course, is that Backstrom logged 79:03 of shorthanded time while Ovechkin logged 1:25 on the kill. [Ovechkin made up some of that difference by logging 309:16 on the power play, tops among NHL forwards, to Backstrom’s 254:03.]

Room for improvement: Having a completely healthy hip would be nice. It’s unclear just how much Backstrom’s hip, surgically repaired on Wednesday, affected his play during the playoffs, but his production dropped dramatically in the second round when he started the series against the Rangers with an assist on Joel Ward’s last-second game-winner in Game 1, but didn’t record his next point until assisting on Ovechkin’s goal in Game 7. Backstrom has averaged just shy of a point a game in the regular season [0.99] but his production dips in the playoffs [0.72] and that will need to change if he is to be considered among the top players of his generation.  

Memorable Moment: There were many, but Backstrom’s puck-jarring hit on Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle with five seconds remaining in Game 1 against the Rangers set into motion Ovechkin’s crafty centering pass to Joel Ward for the game-winner in the closing seconds at Madison Square Garden. If Backstrom does not accelerate into that hit, that play simply does not happen and the two teams go into overtime.

Quotable: “You just want to be average, you don’t want to stand out. That’s for sure the culture [in Sweden]. You can’t stand out because that’s rude, kind of. That’s why I think a lot of Swedish players are like that. Let’s say you do something good. It doesn’t have to be in hockey or sports, you shouldn’t stand out, you should be normal. That’s how Sweden is. People aren’t jealous of other people.” – Nicklas Backstrom explaining the Swedish saying that no one wants to be the tallest shaft of wheat.  

2015-16 Expectations: Backstrom is expected to recover completely from his hip surgery, but his availability for the start of training camp will depend on how well his summer rehab goes. Backstrom averaged just 1.86 shots per game this season and he should work on increasing that average to make him more of a scoring threat, especially on the power play, where teams are willing to shadow Ovechkin.

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”


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Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

Panthers head coach calls for league to review Ovechkin’s hit to Pysyk

The Florida Panthers played over half of Friday’s game with five defensemen after a hit from Alex Ovechkin ultimately knocked Mark Pysyk out of the game.

Early in the second period, Ovechkin attempted to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but it was swept away at the blue line back to Pysyk. Pysyk quickly chipped the puck away and then was on the receiving end of a hit from Ovechkin.

In real time, the hit did not appear to be a big one. It wasn't even the biggest hit Ovechkin delivered in the game, as in the third period he sent Aleksander Barkov flying with a shoulder hit. But Pysyk went down to the ice after the hit and left the game soon after.

After the game, Florida head coach Bob Boughner did not mince words.

“Pysyk got a high hit to the head,” he said.

When asked if he thought the league should review the hit, Boughner said, “I hope they do because if you see the replay, it's high. It's a head shot. And the league's trying to clamp down on that. Whether there's no call, I don't blame the refs. Maybe they missed it. That happens. But those are the kind of plays that need to be reviewed.”

Based on the replay, it is hard to determine if the principal point of contact was the head. Ovechkin does not launch himself, but does appear to take an upward trajectory into Pysyk. Still, it seems like a hard sell to say Ovechkin was targeting the head.

But the hit did send Pysyk out of the game, and in today’s NHL, when head hits are a big topic of conversation and when a player is injured on a play, the NHL has shown it takes those plays more seriously.

Pysyk returned to the game for one more shift after receiving the hit, but left the game after and did not return.

“Right now we're still getting him checked out, but we'll see more in the morning,” Boughner said.