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Ovechkin, Backstrom leading charge for Capitals

Washington back in business after reuniting forwards on top line

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Alex Ovechkin's first order of business Wednesday was to help Nicklas Backstrom get a goal.

It usually works the other way around for the Washington Capitals with Backstrom, the playmaking center, setting up Ovechkin, the left wing, for the goals. But with Backstrom mired in a 21-game goal drought, Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wilson had a chat before the game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Capital One Arena and said, "Let's set up Backy."

So that's what they did.

Wilson passed to Ovechkin to right of the net and Ovechkin passed into the slot for Backstrom, who scored the opening goal at 11:54 of the first period. With that taken care of, Wilson and Ovechkin proceeded to score too, completing a surge of three goals in 3:28 that chased Blackhawks goalie Anton Forsberg to the bench and sent the Capitals on their way to a 6-2 victory.

Ovechkin (one goal, three assists) and Wilson (two goals, two assists) each finished with four points. Backstrom had three (one goal, two assists), giving Washington's top line a combined 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

"It was a very good night for them," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I thought they came out with a pretty good focus. I thought they played quick and they played heavy, and they sort of took the game over."

Video: CHI@WSH: Backstrom buries Ovechkin's delicate feed

When told of Ovechkin's and Wilson's pregame plan to set him up, Backstrom joked, "Yeah, they better."

He also appreciated the effort.

"That was a great play by both of them," Backstrom said. "So, a great way to get us started and then we just got rolling,"

The Capitals won for the sixth time in seven games since Trotz decided to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line and place Wilson on their right wing. Before that, Ovechkin and Backstrom, who have been linemates for much of the 10 previous seasons, had not played together this season and the Capitals were struggling at 11-10-1, including losses in three out of four.

Now, they're 17-11-1 and have climbed within one point of the New Jersey Devils for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Ovechkin has eight goals in the past seven games, giving him a League-leading 21 for the season. That equals the second-highest goal total of Ovechkin's career though the first 29 games. He also scored 21 goals in the first 29 games in 2008-09 and scored 22 in the first 29 of 2013-14.

Ovechkin is on pace to finish with 59 goals, which would be the second-highest total of his NHL career behind the 65 he scored in 2007-08.

"I think it's not about one guy," Ovechkin said. "It's all five guys who are out there, especially our three forwards moving, passing and doing the same thing we did the last couple games. It's fun to play."

That fun might be the key to Ovechkin's resurgence. After he scored 33 goals last season, his fewest in a full season since he had 32 in 2010-11, some wondered if his days as an elite goal-scorer were over.

Although Ovechkin was the only player in the NHL to reach the 50-goal plateau in each of the three seasons before that, he looked to have lost half a step last season. Plus, he turned 32 on Sept. 17, and Father Time appeared to be catching up with him.

Even after hard-working summer when Ovechkin lost four pounds and turned some of his body fat into muscle, Trotz didn't know what kind of production to expect from him this season.

"I didn't know if he was going to get 33 or 50," Trotz said earlier this week. "That's really up to Ovi."

Video: CHI@WSH: Ovechkin cleans up Wilson's rebound

But with the Capitals losing some of their scoring depth with the offseason departures of forwards Justin Williams (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes) and Marcus Johansson (traded to the Devils), Trotz let Ovechkin know that the Capitals needed more from him. He responded by scoring seven goals in the first two games, becoming the first player in the NHL to open a season with consecutive hat tricks since the League's inaugural season in 1917-18.

After getting nine goals in the first five games, Ovechkin's production tailed off some, but he's been red hot since rejoining Backstrom. He had his 20th NHL hat trick, and third of the season, in a 4-1 win at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 25, and hasn't slowed down much since.

With 579 goals, he's climbed into 20th on the NHL's all-time list and appears to have regained some of the speed and power that were missing last season.

"When Ovi's skating, he has such a positive effect on our team and he puts a lot of heat on the other team," Trotz said. "He has a little more joy in his game. When he's playing with joy, you guys have seen it a lot longer than I have, he's pretty effective that way."

Ovechkin is clearly enjoying playing with Backstrom again, and enjoying playing a little more. In an attempt to keep him fresh for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Trotz trimmed his ice time to a career-low 18:21 last season.

This season, he's averaging 19:00 per game.

"We have lots of minutes. When you have [those] minutes, you just enjoy the time and enjoy [playing]," Ovechkin said. "Especially when you play against a great team, you have a tough matchup and when you beat them, the feeling is unbelievable."

With Ovechkin happy and scoring goals at a scorching pace again, the Capitals are following his lead.

"The guy loves to score goals and he's really good, and we're going to need to keep doing this for us to be successful," forward Brett Connolly said. "He knows that, our dressing room knows that, and I think he'll happy with the way he's been playing as of late.

"We're happy with the way he's been playing, too. It helps the team a lot."

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