MONTREAL – Almost lost in Alex Ovechkin’s recent goal-scoring tear is the play of Nicklas Backstrom, the Washington Capitals centre who has quietly been feeding Ovechkin the puck.
While Ovechkin was piling up 16 goals in a 14-game stretch starting on March 14, Backstrom has been just as hot with three goals and 16 assists.
“Our whole line is playing good,” the 25-year-old Swede said as the Capitals prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night. “We’re creating more opportunities than before.”
It has taken time for the pairing to hit its stride this season as it adjusted to new coach Adam Oates’ system, and to Ovechkin being moved from left to right wing. Marcus Johansson is now on the left side.
For the past month, both players have been as productive as they were in their best years. Ovechkin won Hart trophies as the league’s most valuable player in 2008 and 2009, while Backstrom piled up 101 points in 2009-10.
Ovechkin, a four-time 100-point player, tumbled to only 65 points last season. It may have been because he had become predictable as a left-winger, or perhaps because he couldn’t fit into former coach Dale Hunter’s defensive style.
But it may also have had to do with Backstrom missing 40 games. The slick centre was knocked for a loop by an open-ice elbow by Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque on Jan. 3, 2012, and suffered a concussion. Bourque was traded nine days later to Montreal and played against the Caps late last season.
Backstrom still ended up with 44 points in 42 games, but it took a while to get back to top form after the hit.
“It did, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s always tough when you have a concussion.
“You hear so many stories about if you get hit again it can make your career tougher. Obviously you don’t want to see that happen. It took a while last year.”
There were fears he had suffered another concussion when he was hit into the boards in December while playing for Dynamo Moscow during the NHL lockout, but it turned out to be a neck injury.
Still, his start was as slow as anyone on Washington as the Capitals began the lockout-shortened campaign 2-8-1. They looked to have no shot at making the playoffs until their recent spurt put them into top sport in the Southwest Division.
Now, everything is coming together.
“We’re playing with a different intensity now,” Backstrom said. “And me and Marcus are playing with a good goal scorer. He puts it in the net.”
Ovechkin has certainly been doing that. With 25 goals in the first 39 games, he would be on pace for a fifth season of 50-plus goals.
“I have a good relationship with Oatsie,” said Ovechkin. “I feel trust and I just want to go out and play hockey. That was missing last year and right now it’s back.”
If anyone understands gifted players like Backstrom and Ovechkin it would be Oates, who was an elite passer a hockey generation ago in deadly one-two punches with Brett Hull in St. Louis and with Cam Neely in Boston.
“The most important thing is he understands the situation I am in, the situation (Backstrom) is in, and he gives us that opportunity to show what we can do out there,” added Ovechkin. “I don’t think we had that kind of opportunity last year.
“I’m just talking personally from last year, but again, I feel pretty good right now and I’m happy.”
Oates said he talked to Ovechkin last summer about how he played with Hull and let him know that he understands the 27-year-old Russian’s role and importance to the team.
But Oates added: “I don’t know if it’s anything I did. He’s playing well, his linemates are playing really good, our power play’s clicked. He’s got confidence. Putting him on right wing, our goal was to get him more touches on the puck and I think that’s happening for him. Because of that, he’s involved in the game more.”
Ovechkin is now in a hot battle with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer, and perhaps for a third Hart Trophy.
There has been some debate on whether Ovechkin deserves consideration because most of his goals have come against teams not in a playoff position. Then again, in the Southeast, there are lots of games against non-playoff teams.
Backstrom said that shouldn’t be considered.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, the NHL is the best league in the world and it’s going to be tough games every night,” he said. “I don’t know if I buy that.”