MONTREAL – When the Washington Capitals come to town, a crowd forms quickly around 22-year-old scoring star Alexander Ovechkin.
Not far away, left in relative peace, sits Nicklas Backstrom, the 20-year-old rookie who picks up many of the assists on Ovechkin’s often spectacular goals.
As a duo, they promise to bring misery to NHL goaltenders for many years to come. But for now, Ovechkin is happy to absorb the pressure of expectation and endless media interviews.
“Backie’s a great guy,” Ovechkin said Tuesday as the Capitals prepared to the play the first of back-to-back games against the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a little shy with you guys, but not us.”
The Capitals have been skidding near the bottom of the Eastern Conference since their one and only visit to the Stanley Cup final in 1997-’98, missing the playoffs in five of eight seasons since then. But their scouts have been busy piling up talent with all those high draft picks.
Ovechkin was taken first overall in 2004, impressive young defenceman Mike Green was taken 29th overall the same year, Backstrom came fourth overall in 2006 and Alexander Semin 13th overall in 2002.
Now Washington is a team with a nucleus of young players that’s close to a rival for an emerging power like the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins.
“If you see the future, we have great young talent,” said Ovechkin. “Like Tampa Bay, they had young guys and they got more experience every year and then they won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
“Every year we’ll get stronger and stronger.”
That was one reason Ovechkin opted three weeks ago to sign a US$124-million 13-year contract extension with Washington.
In the seven games since signing his mega-deal, which lead up to last weekend’s NHL all-star break, the Russian winger had 14 points and took over the NHL goal-scoring lead with 39. Backstrom had four assists in consecutive games during that span.
Needless to say, he loves playing with Ovechkin.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Backstrom, a clever passer from Sweden sometimes faulted for not shooting enough. “He’s a goal-scorer, so you just pass him the puck and maybe it’s a goal.
“I just try to play my normal game. He’s always skating around and he has room, so I can pass to him. It’s easy to play with him. He’s smart on the ice, too. He’s not just skating around.”
The Capitals have been flying since general manager George McPhee, his team lagging at 6-14-1, fired coach Glen Hanlon and installed Bruce Boudreau behind the bench Nov. 22.
From then until the all-star break, the Capitals went 17-8-4 and were threatening Carolina for the Southeast Division lead.
In the first 28 games under Boudreau, Ovechkin had 25 goals and 17 assists and was plus-11 – not bad for a player who was minus-19 last season. He added two more goals in the all-star game and two memorable misses that stole the show in the penalty-shot contest during the skills competition.
Backstrom had eight goals, 24 assists and was plus-8 over the same span.
Boudreau likes the fact that Backstrom has been able to find his legs in the NHL – and challenge Chicago’s Patrick Kane for rookie-of-the-year mentions – without being the centre of attention.
“It might be a great offshoot of his development,” said Boudreau. “I don’t think it’s intended, where Alex would say ‘don’t worry, I’ll take all the press.’
“If you want to see Nick, he’ll talk to you. But Alex is a bright star and he seems to attract a lot of attention and it’s great for Mike Green and Nick because they can come in under the radar and not have to worry about it.
“Alex has been getting this kind of attention since he was 17, so he’s used to it. The other two aren’t used to it as much, but they’ll have to in future years because they’ll be a focal point as well.”
The security of a 13-year contract did nothing to dull the intensity Ovechkin brings to every game. If anything, it’s made him hungrier.
He has piled up goals and been a first-team all-star in each of his first two full NHL seasons, but has yet to play in a post-season game.
“I don’t want to play for a no-good team,” he said. “I want to win.
“I want to be on a good team like we see right now. We have great young guys. We have great experienced guys. Everything goes up.”