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Reunion shows Ovechkin-Backstrom chemistry still exists

Longtime Capitals linemates combine for key goal in first game back together

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It was almost as if Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had never been apart.

Back on the same line, they teamed to produce a big goal in the Washington Capitals' 5-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators at Capital One Arena on Wednesday.

That's how it's worked for much of the past 11 seasons. Backstrom, the playmaking center, makes the slick passes. Ovechkin, the left wing and dominant goal-scorer of his generation, puts a lot of them in the net.

It's been a mutually beneficial relationship that's helped the Capitals win a lot of games.

Ovechkin's breakaway goal Wednesday, which increased the Capitals' lead to 2-0 with five seconds left in the first period, was the 572nd of his career. It was the 218th time Backstrom assisted on an Ovechkin goal, 38.1 percent of Ovechkin's career total.

"We understand each other, how we have to play," Ovechkin said. "Obviously, we played [together] a long time. So I think it worked out perfectly."

But before Wednesday, Ovechkin and Backstrom had played on the same line for only a handful of shifts this season.

Their separation began during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when coach Barry Trotz thought it would help Backstrom and right wing T.J. Oshie to play with a faster left wing. Ovechkin was playing through knee and hamstring injuries at the time and, with age, (he turned 32 on Sept. 17), he'd lost a half a step.

So Trotz moved speedy 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky into Ovechkin's spot. It worked well enough that Burakovsky remained with Backstrom and Oshie to begin this season.

Video: OTT@WSH: Ovechkin goes bar down on speedy rush

Ovechkin, who reported for training camp in prime condition and appears to have regained some of his lost power and speed, began the season on a line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and rookie Jakub Vrana. That worked well initially, with Ovechkin scoring seven goals in the first two games and nine in the first five.

Backstrom also started well, piling up 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in his first eight games. But that early success fizzled out around the time Burakovsky fractured his left thumb against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 21.

While Burakovsky has been out, Backstrom has struggled, particularly at even strength. Before Wednesday, the 29-year-old had no goals and four assists (two at even strength) in 15 games. With various left wings auditioning on the line, Oshie's even-strength production faded, too.

Oshie has a team-high seven power-play goals, but had one goal and four assists at even strength in 17 games heading into Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin's line with Kuznetsov and, most recently, Devante Smith-Pelly hadn't produced an even-strength point in six games; Ovechkin hadn't scored a goal of any kind during that stretch.

Despite their scoring struggles, the Capitals began November with five wins in six games. But they followed that surge with three losses in four games while scoring just five even-strength goals. With the Capitals falling to 11-10-1 for the season, it was clear Trotz needed to change something.

"It wasn't working the way we played," Backstrom said.

Reuniting Backstrom and Ovechkin seemed the obvious move, but Trotz resisted -- at least publicly.

When asked Tuesday why he hadn't put Backstrom and Ovechkin back together, Trotz coyly answered, "Don't feel like it." Trotz admitted Wednesday that he'd been thinking about doing it for a while and discussed the move with the coaching staff Tuesday.

"[The media] were sort of quizzing me, and I was trying to avoid everything," Trotz said.

When Backstrom and Ovechkin arrived at the Capitals' practice rink Wednesday morning, they learned they'd be playing together on a line with Tom Wilson as their right wing. Neither had questioned why Trotz hadn't put them back together previously, but neither seemed surprised when it finally happened in the season's 23rd game.

Video: WSH@NJD: Backstrom, Ovechkin combine for PPG

"It's all up to the coaching staff," Backstrom said. "I don't know. Sometimes you switch it up."

As with any relationship that's lasted for more than a decade, Backstrom and Ovechkin have no doubt gone through their share of rough patches. But their on-ice chemistry has always been there.

By the end of the first period, Ovechkin's goal drought was over and Backstrom had his third even-strength point (all assists) since Oct. 20.

Backstrom's pass to Alex Chiasson on the right wing started the breakout. Chiasson then fed Ovechkin, who gained a step on Senators defenseman Cody Ceci on the left side. Ovechkin raced in on Craig Anderson and lifted the puck in over the Ottawa goaltender's right shoulder for his 14th goal of the season.

"I was afraid time was running [out]," Ovechkin said. "So I just tried to shoot it as best, as fast as I can and luck was on my side."

Trotz's other changes worked, too. Vrana, who skated at left wing on the second line with Kuznetsov and Oshie, had the first two-goal game of his career. Kuznetsov scored a power-play goal and had two assists. Oshie had two assists.

But seeing Ovechkin and Backstrom back together was a reminder of the special connection between them. It's existed pretty much from the moment then-general manager George McPhee had Ovechkin announce the Capitals' selection of Backstrom with the No. 4 pick in the 2006 NHL Draft in Vancouver.

"It's just like anything," Trotz said. "It doesn't have to be forever, but they do have a special, unique chemistry."

There have been other times Trotz has split up Ovechkin and Backstrom, but they've always ended up back together. How long this reunion lasts remains to be seen, but Trotz said they'd probably remain together for the Capitals' home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday (5 p.m. ET; NHL Network, NBCSWA, SUN, NHL.TV)

"The line that is used [is] if you love something, you set it free," Trotz said. "If it comes back, it was meant to be."

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