NEW YORK -- Nicklas Backstrom is pretty positive that last year he wouldn't have given a hit to protect the puck and make a play like he did in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
It's not that last year Backstrom couldn't do what he did to Ryan Callahan on the play that led to Alexander Semin's second goal, but hitting was not part of his repertoire.
"I was not maybe in the mood to hit at that time," Backstrom said Tuesday. "When you see somebody coming at you, you always want to try to hit back at him. I was lucky, too, that I still had the puck."
Backstrom's added strength from last season to this season is the reason he was able to keep the puck at his feet, dish a big body blow on Callahan, re-gather the puck and send it down low to Alex Ovechkin, who fed a cutting Semin for the goal 11:36 into the first period.
It was a play that you would expect a power forward to make, not a 6-foot, 183-pound Swedish center who is only 21.
"He doesn't get knocked off the puck," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He doesn't look like a big guy out there, but he's really strong and it showed out there (Monday). He competes really hard and we're lucky to have a guy like him, we really are. He's a top-notch center at 21 years old."
Plenty of folks who have followed the Capitals all year called Backstrom's individual performance in Game 3 the best by any Capital this season, which is stunning praise considering Ovechkin is on this team and he scored a League-best 56 goals.
Backstrom had three assists, including the primary assist on Tom Poti's third-period, power-play goal with a pass that Boudreau said was the best he's ever seen in his life. He also had four hits, a plus-2 rating and two shots on goal in 20:58.
The Caps' coach wouldn't go as far as calling it the best game he's ever seen Backstrom play, "because he's played a lot of good ones." But that type of performance in a pivotal playoff game is the kind that catapults an under-the-radar player into a star status.
"People don't know him and he sort of flies under the radar because of Alex (Ovechkin) and Mike (Green) and such," Boudreau said, "but, boy, he's a pretty good player."
Backstrom said last year's postseason experience taught him that Stanley Cup Playoff hockey is a completely different game than anything in the world. He had 4 goals, including 3 on the power play, and 2 assists in seven games against Philadelphia.
He already has 4 assists through three games in this series, which is coming on the heels of a regular season in which he was tied for third in the NHL with 66 assists (with Ryan Getzlaf) behind a couple guys named Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
"It's not a normal game," Backstrom said of the playoffs. "You have to be more physical and you have to fight out there. You have to work hard every shift and hit. I'm not a guy that usually hits that much, but I have to hit, too, to show my teammates that I'm here for work."
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