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NHL Stadium Series

Nylander, Backstrom ready to renew rivalry in Stadium Series

Outdoor game between Maple Leafs, Capitals latest stage for longtime friends, pingpong foes

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

To those on the outside looking in, it will be a magical theatre, an outdoor stage under the lights where the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs will perform in front of more than 30,000 people in the stands.

For Maple Leafs center William Nylander, however, it will just be another setting where he will try to get the better of fellow Swede and Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom.

Whether it's playing pingpong at the Nylander family home more than a decade ago, or playing hockey in front of a national television audience, the competitive juices flow at a fever pitch within Nylander whenever Backstrom is the opponent.

Such will be the case when Nylander and the Maple Leafs face-off against Backstrom and the Capitals as part of the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday (8 p.m., NBC, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV).


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"It's going to be so cool and exciting. I'm pumped," Nylander said this week. "The atmosphere will be great. And the fact that we are playing [Backstrom's] team just adds to it."

The distance between Washington, D.C. and Annapolis is only 32 miles. For Nylander, it's a journey that has been more than a decade in the making.

When Backstrom came to the Capitals as a rookie in 2007, he initially had no place to live. In stepped fellow Swede Michael Nylander, the Washington veteran, and William's dad, who welcomed young Nicklas into his home until Backstrom could find his own place.

Michael Nylander had six kids, which made for a chaotic household at times. On many nights, Backstrom and young William would be doing fierce battle on the pingpong table downstairs when Michael was in the kitchen cooking, which was one of his passions.

"Michael took care of me," Backstrom recalled earlier this season. "He always welcomed me into his home with his family. It was awesome."

Video: 2018 Stadium Series time-lapse in Annapolis, Maryland

All the while, the Nylander tots had one thing on their mind.

"Whatever it was, pingpong, knee hockey, we wanted to beat him," William Nylander said.

Because William was 10 at the time, Backstrom often won in whatever they competed at. Still, young William would never give up.

More than a decade later, William Nylander has closed the gap to the point where there is virtually none anymore. 

Selected by the Maple Leafs with the No. 8 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Nylander is third on Toronto in scoring with 49 points (14 goals, 35 assists) in 66 games. That's three more points than Backstrom, who has 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists) in 63 games.

After the Capitals defeated the Maple Leafs in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round last season, Backstrom and Nylander were teammates with Team Sweden at the 2017 World Hockey Championships, and won a gold medal together.

Even in victory, their competitiveness showed. During an interview with a Swedish television station, the subject of their intense pingpong rivalry came up.

"I kicked his [butt] before at least," Backstrom said.

Replied Nylander: "He thinks he can beat me, but there's no chance."

Chiding aside, Nylander always has viewed Backstrom as a mentor, often watching him play and gaining valuable tips on how to be successful in the NHL.

Video: DET@WSH: Backstrom roofs clutch PPG from the circle

"It's always cool to see him, you know," said Nylander, 21. "Growing up, watching him play and having him at home at the time, which was great.

"Of course I watched him. I probably did it more a few years ago when you'd watch highlights and stuff and try to learn [from] him."

Asked what makes Backstrom so special on the ice, Nylander immediately brought up his vision.

"I think the way he sees the ice," Nylander said. "He reads the ice really well. He knows where the puck is going in open spaces. 

"That's probably what he is known for."

As for Backstrom, 30, he hasn't been surprised by the success of Nylander in his second League season.

"Not at all," Backstrom said. "He and his brothers and sisters were so competitive at such a young age. "You could see he had the determination to be successful."

On Saturday in Annapolis, the hockey world will get the chance to see that as well.

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