By Larry Wigge
There have been times in the past where a big regular-season performer fails miserably in the playoffs. And he hears about more and more as time goes on.
Looking at the statistics, it wouldn't pop out that Nicklas Backstom is one of those players. Before this season's playoffs, he had 12 goals and 20 assists in 37 games. Almost a point per game pace. Still ...
But it doesn't stand up to his 22 goals and 66 assists in 82 games in the 2008-09 season or his best season ever 33 goals and 68 points -- 101 in 82 games in 2009-10. Now does it?
In the playoffs, the little things -- no matter how important you think it is -- do matter. For instance, faceoffs. On statistics alone, Jeff Halpern's 58.4 percentage or Jeff Beagle's 57.7 or Matt Hendricks' 53.6 would be the man. But at 12:33 of the third period in Game 3 on a power play, Backstrom, who was 51.1 during the regular season, was entrusted with the faceoff by coach Dale Hunter.
Backstom won the draw and got it back to Alex Ovechkin ... and he let a screened wrist shot go for a goal.
The 3-2 victory gave the Washington Capitals tied the New York Rangers in the semifinal round series at 1-1.
"When I saw Ovie's shot go in it was like a weight was taken of my shoulders," Backstrom said.
Little things make for big wins in the playoffs. Big is bigger for Backstrom this year when he missed 40 games because of concussion symptoms. He finished with 14 goals and 30 assists in 42 games. And he returned for the final four games in the regular season.
Except for his game-winning goal in the second game of the first round against the Boston Bruins, this was it for Backstrom -- one goal and four assists in eight playoff games. Until Game 3 of the second round ...
"Everybody is sacrificing now, blocking shots," said Backstrom. "We've got to take care of the defensive zone first and then hopefully, it will open up for scoring chances. That's how we've been told and that’s how you win games, too."
Since coach Dale Hunter took over the reins in November, the Capitals all have bought into the new system.
"I think everybody is more committed now," said Backstrom. "Everyone understands we need to play this way. They're setting up a game plan and we're trying to follow it.
"It's the playoffs and it's emotional out there and it's going to be like this every game."
As the NHL's trade deadline passed on Feb. 27, GM George McPhee stood pat.
"If Nicky Backstrom came back, it certainly would improve our chances of being able to win a Cup," McPhee explained. "We can make the playoffs with this team. And if he comes back, we can beat anybody in this conference."
Getting the rust off is important to Backstrom.
"It just doesn't happen that you're in shape after missing 40 games. But he's getting better every game and you see he's getting better and he's getting more ice," Hunter said. "He's been strong. He's going to the net, too, and battling for loose pucks and they're hitting him just like everybody else is getting hit."
Backstrom from Gavle, Sweden, is superb. He was the first pick by Washington, fourth overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Like so many great player he learned from his father, Anders, and from his mother, Catrin, a former handball in the Swedish Elite League in the 1970s and '80s.
"He is one of those guys who I think you can say it is up to him how good he gets, because he has all the tools, he plays with great players and he has a coaching staff that knows what makes him tick," said former Washington center Adam Oates, now an assistant coach with New JerseyTampa. "He obviously has a chemistry with Ovechkin and he knows where he is all times. That's really what a good passer does. You have the ability to understand where a guy is going to be even when he's not there and you almost anticipate the way he thinks.
"It is like a husband and wife -- you start passing the salt before she even asks for it. He obviously has that talent."
Said right winger Mike Knuble, "I played with Joe Thornton when he was coming into his own, which is about the same point Nick is at right now. There are a lot of similarities -- poise with the puck, strength on the puck. He's a lot harder to get off the puck than I ever thought he was. He's getting a lot more confidence as a scorer and as a shooter. He's always been a great set-up guy but he's not afraid to shoot the puck."
And he's always looking to make himself better.
The 24-year-old center began training both on and off the ice with former speed skater Sebastian Falk.
"I try to get better every year when I go home but I wanted to try something new," said Backstrom. "I've been doing more work on my skating, to get more speed out here.
"I've been working on just getting those first couple steps a little better, faster. That's important to me. I think that can really help my game."
It's inherited and it's something important to him.
"There's something that's ingrained in him," former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You don't think of it with Nick because he's a blond, blue-eyed, Swedish, good-looking young man. But he's got a toughness that belies all that, a toughness that coaches just love. He's not going to fight, but he's tough. I saw him last year where he could barely walk, but he was playing.
"He does things that are very subtle, but that not very many people can do. As a passer, I'd put him in the same category as anyone you'd put in with the best passers in the NHL today."
Defenseman Mike Green added: "It's like Peter Forsberg back in the day. Guys emphasize making hard passes. He doesn't need to, because he knows where guys are going to be."
Backstrom's game is still evolving, though, and there are two areas where he must improve to become a complete player: faceoffs and shots on net.
Like most Europeans, the Olympics are tops on his list. He did well -- one goal and five assists in four games for Sweden at the Vancouver games in 2010.
"The Olympics has been a dream since I was a kid," Backstrom said. "It was fun to hear the news. I'm excited right now."
What works for Backstrom -- the playmaker.
"When I was young I was always practicing and stickhandling. Passing was tops on my list," he said.
"When I was 17-year-old coaches told me me I was too small on my national team," Backstrom said of the most common obstacle he had to overcome.
He was no Peter Forsberg in size and strength, but he working on those things -- he's 6-1, 210 pounds.
To that, he'll always credit Boudreau for giving him his chance.
"He's given me the opportunities to play ... and the clutch situations to play in," Backstrom marvels.
To this day, Bruce Boudreau said, "From the first day he came on he was a tremendous passer. What he learned at first was whenever he touched it, he passed it to Ovie. He then learned that he too could score.
"Early on he amazed me with his passing. I still can't believe that ... he put the puck between four players with a pass in a playoff game."
Who said he can't do the little things in the playoffs?
It's what makes Nicklas Backstrom one in a million.