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Conference Final

Backstrom injury taking toll on Capitals in series against Lightning

Washington hoping injured center can return for Game 4 of conference final

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Jay Beagle doesn't want to pry. The Washington Capitals forward knows how annoying it can be to be injured and to have teammates inquiring about your status day after day after day, asking and prodding and wondering. So he leaves Nicklas Backstrom alone these days. He lets him recover.

But that doesn't mean that, like the rest of his teammates and coaching staff and Capitals fans, he isn't waiting anxiously for news of Backstrom's return from a hand injury that has kept the center out of the lineup for past four games, including the first three of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Obviously he knows that we want him back," said Beagle, whose Capitals lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 heading to Game 4 at Capital One Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). "But it's one of those things you don't really ask or talk about. You just go about business as usual and hope when he's ready, you hope for that time to come soon."

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

The Capitals had been sailing along without Backstrom, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the second round to advance to their first conference final in 20 years, then winning Games 1 and 2 at Tampa Bay handily, with center Lars Eller stepping up and performing admirably with two goals and two assists.

But then came a 4-2 home loss in Game 3 on Tuesday that exposed some of the vulnerabilities the Capitals have without Backstrom in the lineup. His absence suddenly seemed more pressing.

"He definitely is very important," Beagle said. "You can't replace a guy like him. He's one of our key leaders and one of our best players. He's a guy who makes this team click and makes us go. Obviously to get him back would be huge. But when he's out, we've got to make sure we do everything we can to get the job done. But yeah, you always feel when you're missing someone like that."

Video: CBJ@WSH, Gm5: Backstrom tallies off Bobrovsky's stick

There was no news Wednesday regarding a return to the lineup for Backstrom, who had 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) in the regular season and 13 (three goals, 10 assists) in 11 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He took the ice for the Capitals optional practice at Kettler Capitals IcePlex on Wednesday, doing a bit more shooting than he had done in previous times on the ice.

When asked if he was hopeful for Backstrom's availability for Game 4, coach Barry Trotz said, "[when] Nicky's ready to go, he's ready to go."

And that would be significant, if that came sooner than later. Because, as Trotz said, "You miss him in every way, shape or form.

"He's a player that has a lot of impact on our team. He's one of the guys that leads in the locker room. When you need a big play, a big performance, he's usually one of the guys that will step up. He's one of our leaders. You look at last night, I thought Tampa Bay -- and [coach Jon Cooper] will say the same thing -- his top guys made a difference, and Nicky is one of those top guys that makes the difference for us at a time when you need them to make a difference."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Backstrom seals win with empty-netter

Backstrom plays in all areas for the Capitals, on the power play, on the penalty kill, at even strength, on defense and on offense, as a spark and as a shutdown player. They could have used him in Game 3, especially on the penalty kill; the Lightning went 2-for-5 on the power play, taking a 2-0 lead 1:50 in the second period.

"He's, in my opinion, our catalyst," forward Alex Chiasson said. "He does everything for a No. 1 center, whether on the power play, he plays penalty kill, he plays really well in our zone and obviously his offensive numbers speak for themselves. I think it's hard to replace a guy like him. Every guy has to bring a little more to the table."

Beagle knows how hard Backstrom is working to return, how much he's hoping to be back in the lineup, where he can help the Capitals win games, and possibly advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

"A key guy for sure," Beagle said. "It's a big piece of our team, so when you're missing a guy like that, obviously it's never good. But we've done a great job of stepping up. If he is out, we've got to continue to step up and play the right way."

They were able to do that for the first three games without Backstrom to reach the conference final and move within two wins of the Stanley Cup Final.

But sometimes, it's clear how much a player is missed. That happened in Game 3. And while they're not planning on pestering Backstrom, his teammates are certainly hoping they will see him back in the lineup again. Soon.

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