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Capitals' Backstrom tasked with slowing down Penguins

Center's improved defensive play will be tested against Crosby, Malkin in second round

by Katie Brown / Correspondent

ARLINGTON, Va. -- While Alex Ovechkin was busy hitting everything that moved in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom was distinguishing himself in a different way.

Backstrom and the Capitals' first line were tasked with playing against the Flyers' top six; they finished the six-game series with four points combined.

"It's sort of that competitive edge," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I think [Backstrom] quietly has gotten really, really hard to play against. You don't notice it, but when there's those battles happening, he's winning them. There's no softness to his game right now."

Backstrom could likely resume that role against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. In the first round, Trotz had no qualms pitting his top line against the Flyers top line. With Backstrom's two-way ability coupled with the size and strength of linemates Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, Washington got the better of the matchup.

"We talked about it all year, how important defense was in the playoffs," Backstrom said. "You have to play good defense to be able to win hockey games. Doesn't matter who you play against, you've got to try to do your best and shut them down."

It's a challenge Backstrom enjoys. Pittsburgh has two of the best centers in the NHL, captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Trotz thinks Backstrom is on the same level. He's often touted Backstrom as a Selke Trophy candidate for his two-way playing ability.

"Every team has their own big guns," Capitals forward Jay Beagle said. "It's always different. You have to make little adjustments to systems and how we're going to play them, but the basics are the same. You play in the o-zone and it shuts down their offensive ability."

Backstrom isn't quite as well known for his goal-scoring, especially playing on a line with Ovechkin, one of the top scorers in the NHL. He's been criticized for not shooting enough but he's content to keep the spotlight on Ovechkin.

In the first round, Backstrom led the Capitals with seven points and scored the series-clinching goal against the Flyers in Game 6. Goalie Braden Holtby later said that Backstrom's shot was "pretty perfect."

"When people ask me about Nick Backstrom, I always say if you're gonna play like Nick Backstrom, you're gonna be one of the top centermen in the league," Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetzov said. "That's where he is right now. It's so nice to have big guys like [Backstrom] play both ways." 

In the regular season, Backstrom reached 20 goals for the second time in his NHL career and was third on the team in scoring with 70 points. Backstrom has averaged 0.98 points per game during his nine-year career.

Video: WSH@OTT: Backstrom's sneaky shot gets past Anderson

Backstrom had offseason hip surgery, missed three games during the start of regular season, but said he feels 100 percent now and definitely much better than he did last year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As for a potential matchup with Crosby, Backstrom knows what to expect if his line is deployed against Crosby's line.

"He's been on fire lately," Backstrom said of Crosby. "You have to stay close to him, I think especially in our defensive zone, play hard on him and make sure you limit his space out there. When he gets a little extra space, he's really good and he can make those plays that no one else can."

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