Hockey fans awoke this morning to a sight that’s not usually seen outside of the first few weeks of the NHL season: the goal scoring leader, a Washington Capital; the assist leader, a Washington Capital; and sitting atop the Art Ross Trophy race, a Washington Capital.
It has been more than a decade since teammates from a single team have dominated the NHL points race together, the last duo to do so coming in 2002-03 when Avalanche teammates Milan Hejduk scored 50 goals and Peter Forsberg paced the league with a 77-assist, 106-point season. But the Washington tandem of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom is looking poised to duplicate feat and changing the Capitals' fortunes in the process.
Ovechkin, one of the greatest goal scorers the league has ever seen does everything at top speed, with brute force and with a certain attitude that makes him loved by some, hated by others. He’s got the flair of a goal scorer cooked up by Hollywood and celebrates with jubilation unlike any other player in the league. Backstrom is the exact opposite. Calm, patient and doing everything while going seemingly unnoticed.
Together, they form a formidable combination of speed, skill, brute force and deft hands and together, they’re picking apart the league. Really, truly, it is together, too.
Of the 886 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time that Ovechkin has played this season, only 94 minutes have come without Backstrom as his pivot. The same goes for Backstrom, he of 883 minutes, who has played only 91 minutes without Ovechkin. When they’re on the ice, they’re dominant.
They’ve posted Corsi For – or shot attempts for, according to the NHL’s newly minted enhanced stats – of 54.7 percent. They have a goals for percentage of 53.4. And though they may be starting the bulk of their shifts in the opposition zone, they’re playing almost every single minute against the other team’s top shutdown line. Which maybe begs the question, is there any way to actually stop the two?
When it comes to Ovechkin, it appears that nothing can really stand in the way of him scoring at will. Last season under Adam Oates, it was clear that something in Ovechkin’s game wasn’t clicking and he still scored 50 goals. Even with Dale Hunter patrolling the bench – a time during which Ovechkin had his worst offensive seasons, he was an easy 30-goal scorer. This season, with coach Barry Trotz patrolling the bench, a coach who is best known for his defensive prowess, Ovechkin is on pace for 53 goals and 85 points.
And speaking of Trotz, you won’t find any shortage of him praising Backstrom. At times, it wouldn’t be that surprising if news broke that Trotz was considering adopting the Swedish pivot. Backstrom’s highest scoring season came in 2009-10 when he registered 101 points, but not even that captured him honors as the league’s leading scorer. Fellow countryman Henrik Sedin won the hardware with 112 points.
Backstrom is on pace to tie his second-highest mark of 88 points, though. With 18 goals and 63 points through 59 games, Backstrom’s pace puts him one behind the projected final total for Chicago’s Patrick Kane. Whether or not Backstrom – or Kane, for that matter – reaches the 88-point plateau is to be seen, but if Backstrom's three-point evening in Washington's destruction of Winnipeg Thursday evening is the kind of thing the opposition can expect going forward, 95 points might not be out of the question.
What makes the combination so special, though, is exactly what has made for other fantastic combinations in the past. Like Oates and Brett Hull or Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, the combination of scorer, Ovechkin, and set-up man, Backstrom, harkens back to the years when gaudy point totals by a pair of stars on a single team were commonplace. With both men in their late-20s now, maybe we’re seeing them become that kind of pair. But there’s more to it than that.
Part of what made any of the great offensive twosomes so spectacular is that the players around them benefitted based solely on the fact that so much time and effort was put in to defending the duo.
In 16 of Washington’s 59 games – 27 percent – both have been held off the scoresheet in the same game. And when teams focus that much on Backstrom and Ovechkin, the Capitals secondary scoring comes through. In those 16 games, Washington has a record of 9-7.
Think of it this way: Backstrom and Ovechkin have been so deadly together that they’re forcing teams to focus so much of their energy on defending them that the Caps are actually above .500 when the two have been shut down completely. That’s a good look for the Capitals. You need look no further than Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice’s comments before Thursday’s game to highlight exactly how this happens.
“We know the names,” said Maurice. “They’ve got a good team, and we know the guys that we have to try and find every shift.”
And that’s exactly it – other teams know the names and they’re seeing them on top of the NHL’s leaderboards.
That means it’s not just Ovechkin scoring highlight reel goals or Backstrom making a pass no other player in the world could make, it’s also that they are making life easier for the rest of the team. Because of that, Ovechkin and Backstrom are a true two-headed monster, destroying everything in sight and letting teammates pick up the pieces.