For a decade, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been dominant offensive forces for the Washington Capitals, spending most of their time in DC together on one line. Over this time Ovechkin has scored 50 goals six times, becoming the greatest goal scorer in the NHL, while Backstrom has hit 70 points during five campaigns.
The Capitals spent years trying to find a quality, second line center to make the team more than just one line of firepower. They finally found one in Evgeny Kuznetsov, who flourished in his second NHL season last year, leading the team with 77 points. Some of his 57 assists, fourth most in the league, were spellbinding. So now, at least to start, Backstrom is the one backing him up — at least on the depth chart.
During Thursday’s 3-2 shootout loss, Backstrom assisted on both of his team’s goals, making enlightened and deft passes that led to two goals for Andre Burakovsky. Backstrom also had five shots on goal and won 16 of his 23 faceoff attempts. The trio was rounded out by Marcus Johansson, a Swede like Backstrom and Burakovsky.
“The Backstrom line was really good,” head coach Barry Trotz told reporters after the game. “All the other lines had spurts where there were okay, but they also weren’t as as consistent as that line. That line was our most effective by a large margin today.”
The second line was able to control possession, calmly getting pucks deep into the Penguins zone with their patience, speed, and skill. With the second line on the ice, shot attempts went the Capitals’ way around 65 percent of the time, confirming what Trotz’s assessment. The first line, save for some overpassing, did not suffer from Backstrom’s absence. They were also commanding, especially as the game wore on.
“I think it’s a good game to get you going right away,” Johansson said.
Backstrom’s two assists are examples of how having a less frantic and more experienced player than Kuznetsov, only in his third year in the NHL, can help boost up-and-coming talents like Burakovsky, 21, and add another element to a pass-first skater like Johansson. On both of Burakovsky’s goals, Backstrom held the puck for just enough time before feeding it to a wide open Burakovsky.
On the first goal, a great breakup of a Penguins breakaway by Dmitry Orlov led to a two-on-one the other way for the Capitals. Backstrom skated the puck along the near wall, before flipping it to a waiting Burakovsky in the slot, who was streaking towards the net. Dre sniped it five hole with aplomb. It was the second time in three years Burakovsky scored the opening goal of Washington’s season, just 59 seconds into the game.
“Obviously I get a really good pass from Nicky,” Burakovsky said. “Just try to take the puck to the net and shoot it.”
“It’s always nice to get a goal in the first game,” he added.
In the third, with the Capitals down 2-1, Backstrom and Burakovsky were at it again. Nick carried the puck from the redline to the slot, drawing the Penguins defense with him. He then dropped the puck to a waiting Burakovsky, who had only trailing defender guarding him. Burakovsky immediately roofed the puck over Pens goalie Marc-Andre Flurey. Talent and smarts at it again.
When asked about he second tally, which secured the Caps a point, Burakovsky praised Backstrom’s handiwork.
“Just a great play from Nicky,” Burakovsky said. “He’s just a great and skilled and smart player so the only thing me and Jojo want to do is find open ice.”
“We all know he can do it by himself,” Burakovsky concluded of Backstrom. “You just have to be ready. You never know when the puck is coming, but it’s coming for sure.”
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