Welcome back: Backstrom lifts Caps to victory
The puck bounded off the boards, and for the first time this season, Nicklas Backstrom was there to corral it. He turned and fired from the half wall, watching the puck slip between Carolina goaltender Cam Ward’s legs for a goal.
This was the first game the Washington Capitals have been at full strength, with their top center finally back in the lineup after missing the first three games recovering from offseason hip surgery. Backstrom made his presence felt in the 4-1 win over the Hurricanes, notching two assists and scoring early in the third period in Washington’s third victory of its four-game homestand to open the season.
“That’s how special he is, when you watch a guy who hasn’t played any exhibition games, and he comes into the
National Hockey League in a fast game against a fast team, and he looked like he never missed a beat,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “You realize how good he is once he’s back in the lineup and what he does for our lineup. It looked pretty easy for him.”
His third-period goal gave Washington a 2-0 lead. Hurricanes center Jeff Skinner cut the deficit to one by banking the puck in off goaltender Braden Holtby on an odd-man rush. But then Backstrom fed defenseman John Carlson at the point on a power play less than two minutes later, and Carlson’s strike restored a two-goal cushion.
Backstrom had notched his first points on T.J. Oshie’s powerplay goal in the first period. Alex Ovechkin’s third goal in three games, coming with less than four minutes remaining, was a nice piece of insurance.
“I was a little bit lucky, to be honest,” Backstrom said. “I was coming into this game with the attitude just to win. That’s all I was thinking about. I mean, I think we did a great job. . . . But it was obviously nice to be back on the ice here. It’s fun to practice, but it’s obviously nicer to play games.”
Backstrom had not yet been cleared for contact when the Capitals opened the season a week earlier and had been stuck watching the first three games. While he found the Comcast SportsNet announcing crew funny, he was admittedly bored. Backstrom didn’t miss a game last season, finishing with an NHL-leading 60 assists; his 78 points in the regular season were good enough for sixth in the league.
Backstrom picked up where he left off. His long-awaited return to Verizon Center was greeted with hearty applause on his first shift. When the Capitals had their first power play 14 minutes 14 seconds into the first period, Backstrom was there, taking his place along the right boards.
Carolina’s Michal Jordan in- tercepted a pass, and Oshie lunged forward to regain possession before relaying the puck to Backstrom.
Backstrom waited several seconds, and just as Oshie got into position near the high slot, he sent him one of his vintage passes. Oshie fired into the top right of the net to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead. He skated over to Backstrom, who threw an arm around Oshie’s neck; Backstrom’s first goal celebration of the season coincided with Oshie’s second power-play goal in two games.
“I’ve been very, very excited about this team and about what we can do if we play the right way,” Oshie said. “With him back, that excitement just builds. It’s great having him back because he’s a very special hockey player.”
The Capitals continued to overwhelm the Hurricanes in the second period, but they couldn’t solve Ward. Washington had a 17-5 advantage in shots after the first period, a margin that ballooned to 27-12 after the second. The Capitals also got a momentum boost after killing off 38 seconds of a five-on-three Carolina power play early in the second period, a span in which the Hurricanes managed only one shot on goal.
But Ward kept the deficit at one goal. His most impressive save of the night came two minutes later, when Evgeny Kuznetsov floated a reverse pass from behind the Carolina goal line. Oshie was there to receive it, but Ward’s glove caught Oshie’s strike. With 2:15 left in the period, Brooks Laich’s breakaway chance was stopped by Ward’s right pad.
“We should have been up by a couple more goals after the second,” Backstrom said. “It’s tough out there.”
Backstrom made it look easy at times. He broke through in the third period, kick-starting the Capitals’ offense, just like old times.
“He seems like he never missed a game,” Ovechkin said.
Nicklas Backstrom skates against Noah Hanifin and Carolina. Backstrom had a goal and two assists in his first game of the season for Washington, which went 3-1 on its season-opening homestand.