Back­strom bided his time for an­other ca­reer year

The Washington Post Sunday - - NFL WEEK 13 - BY IS­ABELLE KHURSHUDYAN is­[email protected]­

A hockey player’s prime is sup­posed to be his early-to-mid-20s, and cen­ter Nick­las Back­strom was no dif­fer­ent, with his ca­reerbest 101-point cam­paign com­ing when he was 22 — nearly a decade ago. As Back­strom ma­tured, his of­fen­sive num­bers de­clined while his all-around game be­came more re­fined. He has been as im­por­tant to the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals for his shut­down role as for his pro­duc­tion.

Why he might be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­nais­sance at 31 is harder to ex­plain. It’s not that he’s old, even by pro­fes­sional hockey stan­dards, but he hasn’t got­ten any faster. And while his shot has al­ways been un­der­rated, it didn’t dras­ti­cally im­prove over the sum­mer. Back­strom fig­ures his mind could be more at ease with the Cap­i­tals com­ing off a Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­onship.

“I’m feel­ing good,” he said with a shrug. “I’m en­joy­ing hockey a lot. Given last year’s out­come, I think a lot of the guys are feel­ing good. There’s no more, re­ally, pres­sure. There’s pres­sure in a dif­fer­ent way now, so that’s prob­a­bly some­thing good . . . . You don’t have to think about it ev­ery day. That’s ob­vi­ously a good thing for an ath­lete. Just kind of let loose and play your own style.”

What­ever it is, Back­strom might be play­ing the best hockey of his pro ca­reer more than a decade into it. With nine goals and 23 as­sists through 25 games af­ter Fri­day night’s hat trick, Back­strom is av­er­ag­ing a ca­reer-high 1.28 points. He has tal­lied at least one point in 12 of his past 14 games. Maybe his pro­duc­tion ta­pers off some as the season goes on, but con­sid­er­ing Back­strom is al­most ex­clu­sively tasked with play­ing against the op­po­nent’s top line ev­ery game, his of­fen­sive out­put to start the season has been im­pres­sive.

“For me, this has been the strong­est he’s played, go­ing on my fifth year here,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “Just the con­sis­tency of what he plays, the two-way game, the plays he’s mak­ing to set guys up — he’s shoot­ing the puck as well as he has over the years. He’s had a re­ally strong year. For me, it’s the best I’ve seen him play through 20-plus games in the start of a season.

“He’s been a huge cat­a­lyst for why we’ve had suc­cess.”

In an­other re­minder of how long he has played in the NHL, Back­strom eclipsed 600 as­sists this season, and with his three-as­sist per­for­mance in a win at the New York Is­lan­ders on Mon­day, he passed Peter Bon­dra for sec­ond on the fran­chise’s all-time points list be­hind only Alex Ovechkin. Hon­ored dur­ing Fri­day’s game, Back­strom raised a hand in ac­knowl­edg­ment be­fore win­ning a draw on the penalty kill.

He is so con­sis­tently on the score sheet that his con­tri­bu­tions — aside from the point pro­duc­tion, he av­er­ages the sec­ond-most even-strength time on ice among Cap­i­tals for­wards while play­ing in all sit­u­a­tions — of­ten get taken for granted. And then there’s the way he goes about his busi­ness on the ice. While his saucer passes have been known to show up on a few high­light reels, he rarely daz­zles be­cause he doesn’t need to. There’s a sub­tlety to his game that comes from an in­dif­fer­ence to the at­ten­tion he would get if he played with more flair.

“Some­times he’s just mak­ing a sim­ple play, and that sim­ple play is the ab­so­lute right play,” for­ward An­dre Bu­rakovsky said.

“He slows the game down,” goal­tender Braden Holtby said. “Some play­ers can do that. They have that abil­ity. You never see him full-speed sprint­ing for pucks or any­thing like that be­cause he’s al­ways cal­cu­lat­ing stuff and pro­tect­ing the puck. He’s prob­a­bly one of the best in the world at that, and he makes it look easy.”

Even with cen­ter Evgeny Kuznetsov back in the lineup af­ter a con­cus­sion side­lined him for more than two weeks, Reirden has kept Back­strom on the top line be­side Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wil­son af­ter the chem­istry among that trio helped Wash­ing­ton reel off seven straight wins and vault to the top of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Di­vi­sion. The Cap­i­tals have scored 30 goals dur­ing this win­ning streak, and Back­strom has been on the ice for 12 of them.

When he recorded 33 goals and 68 as­sists dur­ing the 2009-10 season, Back­strom was clearly tal­ented, but both he and the Cap­i­tals weren’t as dis­ci­plined de­fen­sively as they are now. He has had the most de­fen­sive-zone starts and taken the most de­fen­sive-zone face­offs on the team, a show of trust from Reirden. But that kind of de­ploy­ment hurt his pro­duc­tion a year ago, when he had 13 fewer points and six fewer goals through 25 games than he has now.

“Maybe a lit­tle bit,” Back­strom said. “But that’s some­thing I al­ways wanted to be — a two-way player — any­way.”

Back­strom knows his pace could de­te­ri­o­rate with one mid­sea­son slump. But he is re­ju­ve­nated and hav­ing fun for now, and for the Cap­i­tals, that’s just a bonus on top of what he has al­ways pro­vided them.

“He’s the back­bone of our team,” Holtby said. “He’s who we run off, who we look to in times of trou­ble as a calm­ing in­flu­ence. He shows up ev­ery game to play a com­plete game — de­fen­sively, of­fen­sively, [penalty kill], [power play]. He’s one of the best play­ers in the game right now. Ob­vi­ously he’s un­der­rated — ev­ery­one knows that now. But he’s spe­cial.”


Af­ter post­ing a hat trick Fri­day, the Cap­i­tals’ Nick­las Back­strom is av­er­ag­ing a ca­reer-best 1.28 points.

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