After a slow start, it seems like there's no turning back for Washington rookie Nicklas Backstrom
, the fourth-overall pick of the 2006 Entry Draft.
Backstrom didn't set the League on fire in the first two months of his NHL career, but he really came into his own in December. Backstrom, 20, led all rookies last month with 14 points in 13 games. He had five goals and nine assists and was named December’s NHL Rookie of the Month.
His standout performance also helped Washington to one of its most productive months in years, as the Capitals racked up their most wins and points in a month since March 2003 when the Caps were 7-3-1-3 for 18 points.
This time, Washington picked up 17 points thanks to a 7-3-3 record, which was tied for the third-most points in the Eastern Conference.
"I just want to play my game and help the team," Backstrom said. "We all have to play together to be successful. I just want to play like me and when I do that I don't feel any pressure."
Backstrom didn't score his first NHL goal until Nov. 8 in Ottawa, 16 games into the season, but he looked like a different player in December, playing like a poised veteran. He beat Chicago's Jonathan Toews (5 goals, 7 assists, 12 points in 12 games) and Patrick Kane (2-7-9 in 12 games), Phoenix's Martin Hanzal (1-8-9 in 14 games) and Atlanta's Tobias Enstrom (0-9-9 in 16 games) for the rookie of the month award.
"I don't feel any of that pressure," said Backstrom, who is one of the 16 NHL YoungStars invited to All-Star Weekend. "The only pressure I feel is what I put on myself. That's the only pressure I feel. I don't feel any pressure from the media. I don't think about that."
It's not hard to think about where the Caps would be today without their young center playing up to his abilities. In his first 21 games with the club, Backstrom only had nine points (one goal) and Washington was 6-14-1. In his last 24 games, the native of Gavle, Sweden, has led all NHL rookies in scoring, posting 22 points (7 goals and 15 assists) with the team going 13-7-4 in that span and improving to 19-21-5.
In December, Backstrom recorded multiple points in five of Washington's 13 games, highlighted by three-point efforts in wins against the Thrashers (Dec. 8) and Senators (Dec. 29). Because of his contributions on the ice last month, the Capitals were able to post their highest points percentage in a calendar month (.654) since going 9-1-1 (.864) in February 2001.
While Backstrom has been hot, he hasn't been the only one carrying the Caps. Alexander Ovechkin, Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov also have been chipping in. Ovechkin has scored goals in 19 of his last 30 games. He has at least a point in 10 of his last 12 games and 26 of the last 30 games (25-13-38). Nylander was the club's second-leading scorer with 11 goals and 26 assists before going down with a shoulder injury that will keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the season. Kozlov had a combined 16 points in the last two months, netting one goal and seven assists in November and eight assists in December.
"The mix that we have here is perfect,” Backstrom said. “We have Ovie and guys like Kozzie and Nylander, and that's important to me. I can watch them and they can see what I do, and I can try to do the same. I want to be successful like them."
Who's hot? -- Heading into Thursday's action, Florida's David Booth has points in three-straight games, including goals in back-to-back games for the second time this season. … Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk has 23 goals and 18 assists in his last 30 games, including eight goals and eight assists in his last 10 games. … Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier has recorded a point in 32 of the team's 46 games. The All-Star center has five goals and five assists in his last 10 games and nine goals and 18 points in his last 16 contests. … Ray Whitney has been pacing the Carolina offense all season and the last 10 games have been no different. The veteran winger has five goals and eight assists in his last 10 games, including two goals and three assists in his last four games. … Washington's Mike Green has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in his last seven games, including his 13th goal of the season, which came Tuesday night in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.
Southeast Quotes -- "They're leading our division, so this is very important to win. But for us, it doesn't matter who we play. We have to win. Two points is two points, whether it's against Ottawa or anyone."
-- Washington's Alex Ovechkin on beating the Ottawa Senators 4-2 Tuesday night.
"I never played against Detroit before and just to see (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, it's just amazing skill level. It was nice to be there. I think I had the best seat in the house to watch those guys do their tricks and I was lucky enough to make the saves tonight."
-- Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen on facing and beating the Detroit Red Wings in his first game against the Original Six squad.
A look ahead -- On Friday, Jan. 18, the Hurricanes host the Oilers, the Lightning travel to Pittsburgh, the Panthers hit the road and take on the Devils and the Thrashers are in Buffalo.
On Saturday, Jan. 19, the Capitals entertain the visiting Panthers and the Lightning travel to Ottawa. On Sunday Jan. 20, the Thrashers are home against the Oilers. On Monday Jan. 21, the Hurricanes visit the Islanders and the Capitals pay a visit to Pittsburgh.