NEW YORK -- Nicklas Backstrom is back to being arguably the most important forward on the Washington Capitals. For proof, just watch the replay of his reverse shoulder hit on Artem Anisimov that led to his goal in Game 4 against the Rangers this past Saturday.
Players that are coming off a 40-game absence due to a concussion might not normally make a play like that; one with such brute force. However, Backstrom told NHL.com Monday that he has gotten rid of the frustration and insecurity that he played with upon his return late in the regular season and even in the first-round series against Boston to allow for the physicality and confidence to return in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"I had to get back to playing the normal way that I want to play, otherwise it's just going to be worse, I think," Backstrom said. "It's hard, especially when you know you have it in the back of your head, but you've got to let it go. More and more, yeah (I have let it go). I don't think about it as much as I did the first couple of games. Now it's just about doing what I can for the team."
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Backstrom's physicality, complete with sturdiness on his skates against Anisimov, was a display of the type of play he would make before Rene Bourque's elbow connected with his head on Jan. 3. He doesn't look like the strongest player on the ice, but he can play that part.
"Nicky is a guy who doesn't shy away from those areas of the game," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "He's very good in the corners. He's always in there picking pucks. And I think he surprises a lot of guys, as he did Anisimov with how sturdy he is on his skates. It's not very often you see guys get the best of him."
Added coach Dale Hunter: "He's actually been playing pretty well throughout the playoffs here for a guy that only played a few games after missing 40. It takes time for shape and timing, but the one thing is he can play both ends of the ice. He knows the game; he's a smart player, so he adjusted a lot quicker than other players would."
Backstrom, though, didn't adjust as fast as he would have liked.
As would be expected from anyone coming off a long layoff with a head injury, Backstrom hesitated to be himself in the four games he played at the end of the regular season. He admitted Monday that he continued to hesitate early in the series against the Bruins despite leading the Capitals' forwards in ice time per game.
"You think that you're supposed to be at the same level as you were, and it takes times," Backstrom said. "I was getting a little frustrated. I was thinking, 'I know I'm better.' That's gone, absolutely. It maybe took a couple of games (in the Boston series). It's tough, but you've got to battle through it. That's the way it is."
Backstrom pointed to Game 6 against the Bruins as a moment when he realized he could be himself again.
"Yeah, even though I had that turnover," Backstrom said.
Sure, his turnover in the neutral zone led to Tyler Seguin's overtime winner, but Backstrom had two primary assists, four takeaways, a blocked shot and two hits in that game. He was one of Washington's best forwards despite the last sequence of the game.
"Nicky, he's maybe the quietest superstar in the NHL," Laich said. "I've played alongside him for five years and he's very talented. He does a lot of little things that maybe only a hockey person sees, but can make a world of difference on the ice."
He was making those plays all the time before his concussion. He's finally making them again.
"I feel better and better," he said. "You're always a little worried in the beginning there, but I think I'm getting along good. I kind of have to be good, too. It's tougher out there (in the playoffs). You can't sneak around. You've gotta put your body out there a little bit more."
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