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Backstrom feeling right at home in sophomore season

Thursday, 02.19.2009 / 1:00 AM / NHL on NBC Spotlight

By Mike G. Morreale - Staff Writer

"I think he plays well and he feels like when he has the puck, he knows what to do and knows what you have to do to get better. All the time, he tries to find the open space and the open player, so it's very important for me to be playing with a guy like him and play with him so he can give me puck."
-- Alex Ovechkin on Nicklas Backstrom

Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom says he and teammate Alex Ovechkin have much in common.

Well, almost.

"Ovie has been pretty much in the same situation as me since we both came over from Europe and had to learn the culture," Backstrom said. "The only difference between Alex and me -- he's better."

Tough to argue with Backstrom there, but he's too humble a man to admit he's actually tearing it up in only his second NHL season. He's currently second on the team behind Ovechkin in points (60), first in assists (47) and fifth in goals (13). On top of that, he appears a lot more comfortable in and around the dressing room these days and his command of English has improved tremendously. Heck, he even enjoys a good joke every now and then.

"The best tip Ovie has given me was to take it easy at the bars," Backstrom quipped.

"But, really, I feel like my second year with all the guys here has been a little easier," he continued. "I just feel comfortable with where I'm living and everything around me. We're a great team and the guys have been real supportive."

Backstrom’s talents will be on display Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET) when the Capitals face the Pittsburgh Penguins on the NHL on NBC.

The fact Backstrom has become acclimated so quickly in the nation's capital has meant only one thing this season -- heartache for the opposition. In calendar year 2008, Backstrom ranked third in the League in assists (65) and eighth in points (83).

"I don't know a player his age any better at his position right now," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Jonathan Toews is very good in Chicago, but Backstrom is as good a young center that there is in this game and he'll only get better. I think it's not too far down the road when 100 points in a season will be within his grasp."

Backstrom was runner-up to Chicago's Patrick Kane for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie in 2007-08 after pacing all first-year players in assists (55) and finishing second in points (69). His efforts landed him on the All-Rookie Team with Kane and Toews. He finished tied for third among rookies with a plus-13 rating last season and posted 60 points after Thanksgiving -- 30 percent more than any other rookie in that span last season.

Ovechkin has sensed a renewed swagger in Backstrom's game.

"I think he plays well and he feels like when he has the puck, he knows what to do and knows what you have to do to get better," Ovechkin said. "All the time, he tries to find the open space and the open player, so it's very important for me to be playing with a guy like him and play with him so he can give me puck."

The fact Backstrom has excelled in a season where the Capitals have already lost more than 250 man-games to injury, certainly says a lot about his resolve and determination. In fact, Backstrom led the Capitals and ranked tied for first in the NHL with 21 points in the month of December (6 goals, 15 assists in 14 games).

"I felt like I had to take more responsibility when some of the guys got hurt," Backstrom said. "I mean, I play with players where I feel I have to do something good out there -- we have to score and do a lot for this team. I always want to take responsibility for my position on the team."

Capitals forward Brooks Laich is amazed at how the puck always seems to find Backstrom.

"Nick is so talented and when he skates, he's able to maintain a peripheral view of everything," Laich said. "That's why it never looks like he's in a rush. He always has the puck and it always looks like he's easily moving through the neutral zone and making plays. He and Ovechkin have such great chemistry because they know where each other is. He turns on a dime and is starting to come into his own and taking it to a new level. And what people forget, he's also playing great defensively."

The 21-year-old, first-round choice (No. 4) of the Caps in 2006 leads the club with 52 takeaways through 52 games. On top of that, his durability is impeccable as he has yet to miss an NHL game.

"I'm not the guy who's going to hit the most people, but I try to go more on the stick to steal the puck," Backstrom said. "That's who I am on the ice. I probably have to hit more but I feel that will come eventually. I love to play games; that's why I'm here so I prepare hard."

For the record, the Gavle, Sweden, native has 32 hits and 29 blocked shots while sporting a 45.7 faceoff winning percentage.

"Let's not forget, he started off slow last year because he was in his first season in North America, away from home, on a smaller ice surface and things were coming at him so much quicker," Capitals captain Chris Clark said. "But around Christmas time last season and in the second half of the year, he was so smooth with the puck. He's never nervous and always seems to be in control on the ice. Even when he loses the puck, he gets it right back and for someone that young, to show that much poise, is amazing."

Contact Mike Morreale at
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