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Words is getting out, Backstrom's a star

by Dan Rosen
Brendan Morrison answered without even hesitating, without even blinking an eye.

Who among the long list of centers he's played with and against during his NHL career most reminds him of Washington's Nicklas Backstrom?

"I'll say one of his countrymen, Peter Forsberg," Morrison told

Backstrom, who was sitting across the way in the visitors' dressing room at Madison Square Garden, would have turned bright red if he heard Morrison say that.

Forsberg is, well, a national hero in Sweden and he's been arguably one of the best NHL players in the last quarter-century.

Backstrom, the Swedish kid with the long blond locks, is as humble as they come. At 22-years and two months, he will be Sweden's youngster player at the Olympics, but if he heard his name associated with Forsberg, he wouldn't know what to say or do.

That kind of fits his profile.

Backstrom likes to hide in the background, out of the media's spotlight, which is why he is one of the most underpublicized stars in the NHL.

He's probably more known for being Alex Ovechkin's center, but Backstrom is distancing himself from Ovechkin's spotlight this season and forcing everyone to see him in his own because of his remarkable play this season.

"A lot of people can sometimes think, 'Oh, he plays with Ovechkin, so he's going to put up numbers,' but that's not the case," Morrison said.

Backstrom's 24 goals through 57 games are already a career-high. He has 45 assists to give him 69 points, second on the Caps only to Ovechkin and fifth overall in the League behind Ovechkin (80), Henrik Sedin (78), Sidney Crosby (71) and Joe Thornton (71).

He's shooting the puck more than he did in his first two seasons. He's playing harder in the corners. He's not afraid to battle with towering defensemen like Zdeno Chara, who has at least seven inches and 50 pounds on him. He's finding Ovechkin.

And, according to coach Bruce Boudreau, Backstrom is only beginning to touch tap into his potential.

"The great players aren't their best until say 26 through 29 or 26 through 30, and Nicky is the same way," Boudreau said. "He's growing and learning and getting better everyday. That's why he's going to be really scary in about two years."

Backstrom wants none of this publicity, none of this praise. When asked by if he thinks people around the League realize and recognize how good he really is, he was dumbfounded. He didn't know how to answer because it meant he would have to talk about himself.

"It's your job to answer that one," he said. "I don't do that. I like to be in the background."

So, having Ovechkin, who loves the spotlight, at your side must be great, right?

"It's perfect, just perfect," Backstrom answered. "He likes the attention."

Ovechkin enjoys having Backstrom by his side, too. He's thankful for the chemistry he has with him and says the Capitals feed off Backstrom's play as much as they do his own.

"You can see how he is tough in the corners," Ovechkin said. "He looks small, but I was surprised with how he battled with Chara, and he wins those battles. It's pretty good when guys like this show different guys how they have to win and how they have to play. We watch it and we want to do the same."

Backstrom's strength is another reason why Morrison went right to Forsberg with his comparison.

"You see it numerous times throughout the game, guys try to run him and knock him off the puck and he almost with one hand pushes them off and maintains puck possession that way," Morrison said. "A lot of guys can't fend a guy off and make a play, whereas I thought that was one of Forsberg's biggest assets. He could have a guy draped all over him and still find a guy to make a play. Nicky is one of the best in the League at that."

Boudreau knew almost immediately that it was a matter of time before Backstrom turned into a star. As soon as he took over as the Capitals' coach two and a half seasons ago, he put Ovechkin and Backstrom together and quickly realized they were both darn good.

"I believe he's one of the better centers in the League, but I always have," Boudreau said. "I thought that from the first month I coached him."

"This year he has learned that, hey, it's not a bad thing to shoot the puck and now he's got 23 goals."

He's set his career high in goals already because on average he's putting nearly one more shot per game on net. He has 158 shots this season are already five more than he had as a rookie two seasons ago and only 16 shy of the 174 he put on goal last season.

Backstrom has not missed a game in his young NHL career, playing in 221 straight entering Friday's game against Atlanta.

"The great players aren't their best until say 26 through 29 or 26 through 30, and Nicky is the same way. He's growing and learning and getting better everyday. That's why he's going to be really scary in about two years." -- Bruce Boudreau on Nicklas Backstrom

"Instead of doing one more fancy pass I'm trying to take a shot," he said. "I may be going to the net a little more than I usually do and that has been giving me results."

Going to the net is something the Capitals' coaches stressed with him after last season. They closely watched Sidney Crosby plant himself at or near the net for seven straight games in the playoffs and figured Backstrom ought to be trying that as well.

"That's something that is so important here in the NHL," Backstrom said. "A lot of players, if they go to the net, they score goals."

Kind of like Forsberg did when he was at the height of his career in Colorado.

Backstrom is not Forsberg, not yet at least, but he's perfect for the Capitals in the same way Forsberg was perfect for the Avalanche.

"We know he's one of the guys who can change around the game," Ovechkin said. "It's always nice to see when people come into the League how they are growing up and getting better and better. He knows the League and he knows the game."

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