HOCKEY

The Washington Times Daily - - Sports -

of the best play­ers in the league if not the best player in the league. He was play­ing lights-out for us,” de­fense­man Karl Alzner said. “He is a mas­sive part of this team that we would love to have and need to have.”

But this isn’t a bro­ken thumb, like what Back­strom played through in last year’s play­offs. This isn’t a hip pointer, which de­fense­man John Carl­son fin­ished the Tampa Bay se­ries with. This is a con­cus­sion, a brain in­jury that can linger even into re­tire­ment.

So de­spite the high stakes, it would be fool­ish to rush him back. Gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge Mcphee, even in an­nounc­ing Tues­day that Back­strom passed a neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal test with “fly­ing col­ors,” agreed.

“I would’ve liked him in the lineup 50 games ago. Ob­vi­ously, he’s a ter­rific player, but it’s got to be his de­ci­sion,” Mcphee said. “We’re not go­ing to put any pres­sure on him to play. He’s got to be com­fort­able. We’re not go­ing to put this kid at risk by telling him we need him to play.”

Back­strom is the fran­chise’s build­ing block down the mid­dle, and the chances of win­ning the Stan­ley Cup this sea­son are ab­surdly re­mote even if he does re­turn.

That’s mostly be­cause this Back­strom won’t be 100 per­cent right away. De­fense­man Mike Green, who re­turned from his con­cus­sion last sea­son just in time for Game 1 of the play­offs, smiled and said: “With Nicky, you never know, he’s so good. He can prob­a­bly come back and be fine.” There still will be a ma­jor ad­just­ment.

Nick­las Back­strom in late March and early April won’t be the same Nick­las Back­strom who had 13 goals and 39 as­sists Jan. 3. The 24-year-old re­mained the Caps’ lead­ing scorer un­til Feb. 9 de­spite miss­ing those 16 games.

Back­strom ac­knowl­edged Satur­day that this process of get­ting back into game shape is like be­ing back in train­ing camp. But as much as he wants to play, he has seen Pitts­burgh’s Sid­ney Crosby, team­mate Jay Bea­gle and oth­ers go through this process and ap­pre­ci­ates the sever­ity of con­cus­sions.

“I want to be back as soon as pos­si­ble, but you’ve got to be care­ful and make sure you’re a hun­dred per­cent be­fore you go back be­cause you don’t want to get any set­backs,” Back­strom said. “That’s what we’re look­ing for­ward to and hope that I can be back as soon as pos­si­ble. That’s my goal.”

Tues­day, coach Dale Hunter re­fused to spec­u­late about how close Back­strom is to play­ing, de­fer­ring to trainer Greg Smith.

“I don’t know,” Hunter said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Wait. And wait. And wait some more. If the Caps can’t man­age to beat the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens this week­end at home and the Tampa Bay Light­ning on the road next week with­out Back­strom, they don’t de­serve to make the play­offs.

Plus, it’s not like these are De­cem­ber games against the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets.

“It’s not like he’s jump­ing in in the first two months of the sea­son,” Bea­gle said. “We’re right in the thick of things.”

Mcphee went on record Feb. 27 say­ing “if [Back­strom] comes back, we can beat any­body in this con­fer­ence.” Con­sider Crosby, NHL scor­ing leader Ev­geni Malkin and the Pen­guins or Vez­ina Tro­phy can­di­date Hen­rik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, and that’s hard to en­vi­sion.

So why press Back­strom into ac­tion? Mcphee was right about the no­tion that this team, even with Back­strom out, can make the play­offs. A soft stretch com­ing up and even softer com­pe­ti­tion for the fi­nal play­off spots fuel op­ti­mism.

Back­strom has been symp­tom­free since he re­turned from his na­tive Swe­den in mid-march. Of course his friend Green knows from ex­pe­ri­ence the need to take things slow.

“No­body can tell him how he feels ex­cept for him,” Green said. “Yeah, I did men­tion that to him: If you still have symp­toms, take care of your­self be­cause one hit and you’re back to square one.”

That’s the last place the Caps and Back­strom need to be. He has seven years left on his deal with sev­eral of those in what should be the prime of his ca­reer.

So as much as play­ers want him back on the bench and fans want to see him on the ice, Back­strom shouldn’t be back un­til he’s more than ready. Even if that means April. Even if that means Septem­ber.

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