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Replacing Backstrom unenviable, yet familiar task

By Corey Masisak - Staff Writer

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Replacing Backstrom unenviable, yet familiar task
Filling the void while the talented center sits out a Game 4 suspension won't be easy, but Washington got used to having to win without him during a lengthy injury absence this season.

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If Alex Ovechkin is the figurative beating heart of the Washington Capitals, then Nicklas Backstrom is the soul.

Ovechkin's game is measured by ferocity and high-speed collisions, while Backstrom's is more serene and tactical. That isn't to say there's not a fiery edge to the smooth-skating Swede, and for the first time in his career that emotion got the best of him.

With Backstrom forced from the lineup for Game 4 of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series by a one-game suspension, the Capitals will be in the unenviable, although familiar, position of needing to win an important contest without their best center and playmaker.

"We just have to obviously modify a little bit, but just I think keeping things simple and making it easy on ourselves by playing smart," forward Joel Ward said. "[Backstrom] is our go-to guy, but it is just one game and we've been without him before for more than one game. It is about everyone sticking together as a group and just executing and limiting mistakes."

"[Backstrom] is our go-to guy, but it is just one game and we've been without him before for more than one game. It is about everyone sticking together as a group and just executing and limiting mistakes." -- Capitals' Joel Ward

Added Ovechkin: "He's our leader and he's a top player but right now with this kind of situation, for us, we have to be more tighter together and play for each other."

In a series where scoring has been at a premium, the Capitals will play a game without their most consistent offensive player this season. Backstrom had 44 points in 42 regular-season contests, and he has an overtime goal and a highlight-reel assist in this series.

While Backstrom has technically been deployed on Washington's second line against the Bruins, that is a strategic decision by coach Dale Hunter to avoid having his two best players face Boston's world-class defenders at the same time.

"We've got to keep it simple," forward Troy Brouwer said. "I think when Nicky's got the puck, he controls the play. He slows it down. He sees the ice well. Without a player like that, you've got to find other ways to keep possession of the puck. Whether it's getting it in and getting the cycle, you've got to have other guys making sure they're not just throwing pucks away. You've got to kind of compensate for him being out."

Before this season Backstrom was an iron man, missing only five games in his first four seasons and playing during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a broken thumb. He missed 40 games this season because of a concussion that resulted from an elbow to the side of his head Jan. 3 from then-Calgary forward Rene Bourque.

The Capitals' offense was not the same without the slick-passing Backstrom, and while Ovechkin is the face of franchise, the team's lack of depth at center makes the 24-year-old from Gavle, Sweden, the team's most indispensable player.

Brooks Laich is expected to remain the center on Ovechkin's line for Game 4, though Marcus Johansson was moved to the right wing next to them for practice Wednesday. Johansson and Perreault were the two players tasked with trying to replicate much of what Backstrom is responsible for during the regular season.


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Perreault will move into Backstrom's place next to Alexander Semin, while Jason Chimera will flank them. It is a line that played together for part of the time Backstrom missed, and a trio Washington could need contributions from if Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Patrice Bergeron are able to limit Ovechkin's opportunities.

"We can't replace Nicky, but at the same time, some guys have to step up and I'm one of those guys that will get that chance," Perreault said. "I'm going to play probably with [Chimera] and Semin, who I played with for most of the second half of the year, so it's nothing new for me.

"I think me and [Chimera] have a lot of speed and we're good at getting the puck down-low and working, and [Semin] is good at finding the loose areas and he's got a great shot. So most of the time it's just about working and cycling and getting the puck to Semin for a shot."

Backstrom is the team's creative force on the power play, and without him the Capitals altered their alignment during practice Wednesday. Washington had used Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich and Mike Green for the first three games of this series on the top power-play unit. That has been the team's most-used quintet with the extra man since the Capitals rose to prominence during the 2007-08 campaign.

Ovechkin and Green remained on the points Wednesday, but the front three changed. Johansson and Perreault were joined by Brouwer, who replaces Laich as the guy hanging around the net. Semin and Laich were put on the second unit with Keith Aucoin, John Carlson and Dennis Wideman, likely for familiarity purposes with the first unit and to create more balance between the two.

"Not much [changes] -- I haven't been playing with Nicky [on the power play] the last few games anyway," Johansson said. "I'm going to still try to do what I always do. We're just going to have to find a way to put the puck in the net on the power play."

The Capitals will need strong efforts from guys like Perreault and Johansson, but this game would be a great time for the team's depth, considered a significant asset at the onset of this season, to make an impact. Mike Knuble is set to rejoin the lineup on the fourth line across from Joel Ward with the diminutive Aucoin in the middle.

Hunter will likely rely heavily on the third unit of Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle and Brouwer to stymie Boston's top forwards, but the Bruins' bottom six has had the upper hand in their matchups with the Capitals' role players. Both Knuble and Ward have had great success in recent postseasons, and play a similarly rugged style.

"It is a tight series," Ward said. "Getting a goal from anybody is a positive sign. For us, it is just to make sure we don't panic or anything."

The Capitals defeated the defending Stanley Cup champions three times this season without Backstrom, and each of the contests in this series have been decided by a single goal. All three games were tied with two minutes left in regulation, and two needed overtime.

Washington has proven it can play with the defending champs, but now the Capitals are tasked with doing so minus Backstrom, and a loss would leave them needing a season-saving trip to Beantown this coming weekend.

"I think everybody is stepping up," Johansson said. "The last games since the playoffs started everybody is playing really well and everybody is trying their best. I don't think there's many steps left. Everyone knows what is on the line here for us. I think everybody is going to keep giving everything they've got."

Quote of the Day

It's a big milestone for me and I'm happy to help my team with lots of good teammates. It's fun.

— Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, who on Wednesday became the ninth Russian-born player, and ninth Red Wings player, to score 300 NHL goals
World Cup of Hockey 2016