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Notes: Backstrom quietly leading Capitals to success

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Everyone who talks about the Washington Capitals mentions Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby.

There's good reason for that as those two players have been pivotal to the Capitals' success.

But Nicklas Backstrom deserves a mention with those two.

In fact, Backstrom leads the Capitals with 54 points in 54 games. Ovechkin has 50 in 54.

"Backstrom is one of the best players in the league, without question, easily one of the most underrated players, but easily one of the best players in the league," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "We've had a chance to watch him lots here. His poise with the puck is outstanding, he just does lots of things, he's a complete player. I can't say enough good things about him. He's easily one of the best players in the league."

Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg has played with Backstrom on Team Sweden in the 2006 world championship and against him in the NHL.

"He can do it all," Zetterberg said. "You see all the offensive skill he has with the passes and the plays he makes but in the same way, he's a really good defensive player. He's a hard player to play against."

Interestingly, it was Zetterberg who mentioned to Backstrom, 29, that he might want to spend an extra year back home in Sweden before coming over to play in the NHL.

"Mostly probably because I stayed another year too and it helped me a lot," Zetterberg said. "When I stayed that year, I played one Olympics and one world championship and I think that helped me a lot to prepare to be over here. You get a little bit more mature, you get more responsibility in Sweden and play more minutes and I told him there's no rush to get over here, he'll be here for many, many years anyway."

Zetterberg was absolutely correct on that as Backstrom will play in his 707th career game tonight.

Backstrom is just four points away from the 700-point mark.

Backstrom's former teammate, Mike Green, is a fan. "I think mostly just the way he sees the ice," Green said. "He sees the game a different way and he's able to slow things down and make plays that not many guys can.

"Not only that, he's a great guy."

CAPS TOUGH, ESPECIALLY AT HOME: When you look at the numbers, the Wings' challenge tonight in Washington seems even more daunting.

The Capitals have a 10-game winning streak at home, they have scored five or more goals in each of their last nine home games and they have outscored opponents 50-12 in the streak, including five shutouts.

"I've got enough of the numbers to be very aware of it," Blashill said. "At the start of the year many people would say they were one of the top teams in the league and they've proven that with their record. Their record the last couple months, month and a half, has been outstanding. They're a complete team. They've got probably as much a complete a roster as anyone in the league in terms of forward, D and goalie. There is not a natural weakness you can pick apart."

The Capitals have outscored opponents 58-23 in the first period, so the Wings know they have to maintain their recent good play at the start of games.

"That's been one thing here that we really wanted to focus on coming out of the break, having better starts," Zetterberg said. "I thought, except the first one after the break, we've been pretty good from the start. But it will be a challenge here tonight. Loud building, they come out flying from the start so we got to be on our toes."

The Wings played well the last time they were in Washington on Nov. 18, but they couldn't solve Holtby, who earned a 1-0 shutout.

"I think it's imperative that we stay above, try to eliminate their speed," Green said. "They play a fast-paced game and those pucks around the net or shot opportunities, we got to make sure we're there. They've got some guys that can shoot the puck."

The Capitals also have the seventh-ranked power play in the league to go along with the fourth-ranked penalty kill.

"Stay disciplined, obviously not give their power play many chances," Justin Abdelkader said. "Stay disciplined with our play, not turning pucks over, being smart and efficient that way."

The oddsmakers won't be picking the Wings tonight but that doesn't mean they don't have a chance to win.

"We have to play a great road game," Blashill said. "We have to do a great job of managing the puck, we got to do a great job of getting the puck out at our blue line, getting the puck in at their blue line and trying to make them defend. We've proven to be a really good hockey team when we play in the offensive zone. So, let's do everything we can to transport the puck and play in the offensive zone as much as possible."

SPROUL GETS A TURN: Ryan Sproul has not played since Jan. 10 but will get a new opportunity tonight in Washington.

"It's been a long time," Sproul said. "I just got to come back and play the way I know I can, and if I can produce some points and hopefully try to help with the power play as well."

Blashill has emphasized several times that he's looking for Sproul to assert himself.

"For Ryan to be successful, he's playing assertive, he's confident, he's getting the puck and skating it, he's going back and breaking pucks out with his feet, he's attacking, he's always been good from the offensive blue line in, he does good things on the power play," Blashill said. "To me, that's a synopsis of what makes Ryan Sproul successful. Probably the No. 1 thing is he's being assertive."

Sproul has a hard shot and a shot-first mentality, which makes him a good fit on the power play, especially in the absence of Niklas Kronwall.

"When the power play is struggling, the goal is to get the puck to the net and pretty much out-battle in front," Sproul said. "That's what we're going to do and hopefully I can contribute to that."

Xavier Ouellet will be a healthy scratch.

Petr Mrazek will make his fourth straight start.

HOWARD UPDATE: Jimmy Howard made his second rehabilitation start with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins last night against the Manitoba Moose but had to leave the game midway through the third after feeling a tweak in his right knee.

"He's going to be evaluated today," Blashill said. "I don't think it was anything major, I think it was just minor, maybe where you feel a little tweak, but we'll know more this afternoon."

Howard originally injured his knee Dec. 20 in Tampa.

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