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Nicklas Backstrom of Capitals nearing 500 assists

Chemistry with Alex Ovechkin has played significant role in run toward milestone

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Nicklas Backstrom remembers the moment well but claims he didn't realize at the time that it was the beginning of symbiotic relationship.

At the 2006 NHL Draft in Vancouver, the Washington Capitals had left wing Alex Ovechkin, who two days earlier won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the League, go on stage and announce they had selected Backstrom, a center from Gavle, Sweden, with the No. 4 pick.

"That was pretty cool," Backstrom said. "I only knew that [Ovechkin] was a really good player. He had a strong first year. After that, I didn't even know I was going to play with him. But it worked out good."

It couldn't have worked out better for the Capitals, who were hoping Backstrom would develop into a playmaking No. 1 center who would mesh with Ovechkin. With 20 assists this season, Backstrom heads into the game against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+2, CSN-DC, NHL.TV) needing three to become the first Capitals player to reach 500 assists.

"It would mean a lot to get 500," Backstrom said. "It's a pretty big milestone, I would say. That's something I never would have thought when I came into the League. But obviously, it's been going better than I thought."

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Backstrom, 29, will be the 139th player in NHL history and 14th active player with 500 assists. That he'll be the first Capitals player to reach the milestone is something he said, "I don't really think about it too much right now. But absolutely the day I retire I'll probably look back and be proud of it."

Playing with Ovechkin has been a significant part of Backstrom's success. Since Backstrom joined the Capitals as a rookie in 2007-08, Ovechkin has scored 442 goals and Backstrom has an assist on 201 of them (45.5 percent).

"Of course it's chemistry," Ovechkin said. "We started playing together when we were really young and now we're grown up and we have connection on the ice. He knows where I am because he mostly controls the puck, so I just have to be open. I have to find the open space and he will find me there."

To Backstrom, the connection with Ovechkin was a natural one from the start.

"He's a good goal-scorer, he shoots a lot and I like to pass," Backstrom said. "So it's been a good fit like that."

The chemistry between Backstrom and Ovechkin has drawn comparisons to past center-wing tandems Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who played together on the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings, and longtime Islanders linemates Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.

Gretzky assisted on 364 of Kurri's 601 NHL goals (60.6 percent) and Trottier assisted on 310 of Bossy's 573 goals (54.1 percent), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They also played during a time when line combinations were more stable.

Although Backstrom and Ovechkin have played together fairly regularly during the past 10 seasons, line combinations often are shuffled during the course of the season. Backstrom has assisted on six of Ovechkin's 15 goals this season, but in an attempt to spread the scoring depth, Capitals coach Barry Trotz mostly has used them on different lines 5-on-5.

Other than some occasional shifts, Ovechkin has played all but three games with Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center. But Backstrom and Ovechkin continue to play together on the power play and Backstrom has assisted on five of Ovechkin's six power-play goals.

"I feel like we know where we're going and where each other are," Backstrom said. "That's how we always do something positive when we've been playing with each other for a long time."

The relationship has been mutually beneficial. Ovechkin has 540 NHL goals, including seven 50-goal seasons, and is 10 points from becoming the first Capitals player with 1,000. Backstrom has been a part of that but doesn't think he deserves any credit.

"No, not really," Backstrom said. "He's been so good for many years and so impressive."

Ovechkin said what makes Backstrom special as a playmaker are, "His skill, the way he reads the game, his talent."

Among players with at least 600 games, Backstrom ranks 16th in NHL history with 0.73 assists per game and is second to Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (0.83) among active players. Right wing T.J. Oshie said Backstrom has a knack for getting the puck to his linemates in their prime shooting position.

"So if you're on a one-timer it seems like it's always in your wheelhouse. It's always right there," Oshie said. "Whether it's a saucer pass or flat on the ice or under a stick or through someone, it's usually flat and he only puts in your shooting position. That's one thing that's kind of a basic thing. The higher-level thing is his ability to anticipate where people are moving and see one, two and sometimes almost three layers across the ice. Whereas some guys can just see the guy in front of them and then they can pass it past that guy, he can see all three layers."

Trotz said Backstrom's patience with the puck and ability to control it under pressure also separates him.

"His pulse rate is very low when it comes to panic level, especially in tight quarters. And then he's accurate," Trotz said. "He's smart and he understands what the next move is. He's like a chess player. He's making a move now in order to create another move or find someone open."

Although Trotz often encourages Backstrom to shoot more -- he has 174 NHL goals, including nine this season -- he said he wasn't always a player who looked to pass first.

"I was more a goal scorer up until I was 13 or 14," he said. "That's when I turned around that I was more a passer, I guess. I think it's just for my position. A centerman is maybe not always a goal scorer."

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