Nicklas Backstrom was averaging more than a point per game in early January. He was cruising toward being the team MVP for the Washington Capitals, a bright light on a team full of struggling offensive players. Then, Rene Bourque stuck out his elbow and connected with Backstrom’s head, and the Capitals spent three months without their No. 1 center.
Backstrom had a concussion, and the recovery was long and frustrating. He was stymied when he couldn’t return in short order, and eventually went home to Sweden to get away and refresh mentally.
Alex Ovechkin is the face of the franchise, but Backstrom is the team’s most important player.
Washington has other guys on the wing -- Alexander Semin, Troy Brouwer, even Jason Chimera this season -- who can provide offense.
The Capitals, however, are thin at center, and haven’t employed a traditional No. 2 pivot since Sergei Fedorov left town. Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson are both more suited to be a strong No. 3 center, and while Mathieu Perreault has provided some offensive spark he can be exposed at the other end.
Without Backstrom, the Capitals were really thin down the middle. Now that he’s back, Washington has one of the 7-10 best players at the position when he is playing well. They also have two strong defensive centers in Backstrom and Laich to match up against teams with better depth at the position.
Backstrom also has some added motivation in this postseason. He played with a broken thumb during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and became an easy scapegoat for the team’s early exit when he had no goals and two points in the nine contests. Backstrom was Washington’s most consistent forward in the previous three postseasons, but memories are often short and it is safe to say he’ll be reminded about that postseason scoring drought in the coming days.
The Capitals were struggling to qualify for the playoffs without Backstrom. Had they made it without him, they’d almost certainly have a short stay.
Now that Backstrom is back and healthy, the Capitals could be a different team than they were during the first few months of 2012. They might just be a team that performs above what people expect of them, which would be a welcome change in Washington -- just as Backstrom’s return has been a welcome development for the Capitals.