Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nicklas Backstrom ... sleight of hand ... magic passer

By Larry Wigge

Nicklas Backstrom couldn't pass up a chance at history.

Narmally, the 28-year-old assist-man extraordinaire would have found a way to dish to somebody, anybody, within sight.

But on Sunday, April 24, Backstrom positioned himself in the right faceoff circle and he completed a tic-tac-toe passing from Alex Ovechkin to Marc Johansson for a one-timer by Backstrom at 8:59 of the second period.

It was going to have to be a perfect shot to beat Michal Neuvirth, the former Capitals' goaltender who saved 75 of 76 shots in Games 4 and 5. Backstrom aimed for the top of the net -- a place he knew Neuvirth couldn't defend after sliding over -- and unleashed his shot for a 1-0 Washington Capitals victory and a 4-2 series victory over Philadelphia.

"It's still a one-goal game, but I thought after that goal we got some energy and starting playing a little better, got in our zone, some chances," said Backstrom. "It gave us a little boost that's for sure."

And Neuvirth also said he knew he had an angry Backstrom after coming out of the penalty box for serving a penalty he did not think should have been assessed.

"This is a shoot-first league," Trotz said, "and today Backstrom was the difference-maker for us."

Backstrom flies under the radar like no other current player with 600 career points. Only six active players have more points a game since he entered the league and they're the best of the best: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Kane.

Ovechkin said Backstrom makes him better every day. Their chemistry has led the Capitals to eighth playoff appearances in nine years. The Ovechkin-Backstrom duo could go down as one of the best in hockey history.

"It's just a perfect match," Ovechkin said of having an all-time shooter with an all-time passer.

"It's like Patrice Bergeron, who doesn't talk about himself and get a lot of accolades, but everybody's recognized it and now they've seen him play in international tournaments and all this," Trotz said of the Boston Bruins center. "You've got the coaches talking about how great Bergeron is. Well, I'm talking about Backstrom ... and he's in that same mold as a Bergeron ...

"They're both complete players, they're fantastic on the draws, in every situation, on both sides of the puck and when the game is on the line."

The Gayle, Swede, native, had a late start to the 2015-16 campaign following offseason hip surgery, but still managed to play in 75 games, picking up 20 goals and 50 assists in that span. It was the sixth time he has accumulated 50 or more assists in nine seasons, topped by an amazing 33 goals, 68 assists and 101 point 2009-10 season.

"I watched him before, too, and I knew he was great," said Vancouver Daniel Sedin, played with Backstrom at the Sochi Olympics. "But I didn't think he was that good. He was so much fun to play with on the same line -- great passer, great vision. Just the way he skates and moves, he's easy to play with.

"He's up there among elite centermen."

"It's nice to kind of get appreciated, maybe?" Backstrom said. "But at the same time, it's not that I haven't gotten any recognition at all. I'm happy with the way it was or is."

Backstrom was the first pick by Washington, fourth overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

On a personal level, Backstrom is a father now and he is remembering the lessons his father taught him when he first put him on skates at 3 or 4 years old: "Try your best and work hard."

Like so many great player he learned from his father, Anders, who played defense in Sweden, 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 coach Adam Oates. "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."

He's always looking to make himself better.

The 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 have 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.

But ...

"When I was 17-year-old coaches told 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 gave me the opportunities to play ... and the clutch situations to play in," Backstrom marvels.

To this day, Boudreau says, "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?

Watch Backstrom enough and, eventually, every part of the mosaic begins to sparkle. See him nightly and those deceptive first steps, the way he'll pass the puck then quickly tie up an opponent's stick, or the way he routinely emerges from the corner with what he came for, become things that cannot be missed. But many people aren't watching the Capitals regularly and absorbing all that nuance can require a trained eye or, at the very least, one that isn't fixated on Backstrom's supernova of a linemate.

Nicklas Backstrom was nearly 3 years old when he received his first pair of ice skates -- rugged yellow-and-brown hand-me-downs first worn by an older cousin before they were gifted to his older brother.

There was no ice outside on which Backstrom could skate, and so in his excitement, he wore them all day, gashing the floors throughout the house with their dulled blades, dodging pleas from his parents, Anders and Cartin, that he take them off.

There was no ice outside on which Backstrom could skate, and so in his excitement, he wore them all day, gashing the floors throughout the house with their dulled blades, dodging pleas from his parents that he take them off.

"I didn't want to take them off," Backstrom said, smiling, "so I slept with them on. My parents couldn't do anything. I wanted them on. That's what happens."

Said Trotz, "His hockey IQ is off the charts. I've had a lot of good players, but he's the best at that complete package."

Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma says that Backstrom is one of his favorite.

"For me, I was scared of him before and I'm probably more scared of his game now," Bylsma said. "He has such a great ability to hold on to the puck, manufacture time, read the play and execute with the puck, that it allows the other players on his line to freelance, to not be in the same spot all the time.

"They can go to different areas, they can work to get open away from the puck."

He likens Backstrom's gifts with the puck to those possessed by Hall of Famer Adam Oates, who's considered one of the greatest playmakers of all time.

"It's an unbelievable asset that he has. I don't want to say it's sleight of hand," added Bylsma. "To me, he's the best player on the half wall, he's the best half-wall distributor."

Just when you think you've seen it all, Nicklas Backstrom does something new and more exciting.

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