Nicklas Backstrom has a well-earned reputation as one of the NHL’s elite setup men. He’s starting to show he’s not bad at the whole goal-scoring deal, either.
Backstrom had a pair of goals Wednesday night to help the Washington Capitals to a convincing 5-2 victory against the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.
“I haven’t changed anything, actually,” Backstrom said. “I’m just trying to shoot a little bit more.”
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “He’s got a good shot, and it is sneaky quick. We’ve been asking him for a long time now to not be so generous and be a little more selfish when he has the puck in those areas and just shoot it.”
The Sabres carried the momentum into the second intermission, but Tomas Fleischmann drew a pair of penalties midway through the final period and Washington’s recently dormant power play put the game away.
With the two-man advantage, Alexander Semin fired the puck toward the slot. Alex Ovechkin whiffed on a one-timer, but it went right to Backstrom along the goal line to the right of Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller, and he flipped it into the net at 10:55 of the third.
Backstrom now has 14 goals, which puts him on pace to best his career-high of 22 last year. He has 10 in the past 11 contests.
The Caps still had time left on the second penalty, and Ovechkin added another insurance tally at 12:10. Mike Green sent the puck toward the slot, and it banked off Brooks Laich to Ovechkin in the left circle. He now has 24 goals, two shy of the New York Rangers’ Marian Gaborik for the league lead.
Miller entered the contest atop the league in goals against average and save percentage, but he yielded five goals on 38 shots - only the second time this season he has conceded that many.
“You can argue he’s been the best goalie in the league so far, and the stats back that up,” forward Brendan Morrison said. “That was our plan - to get on him and get a lot of shots to the net early.”
The Caps raced to a 2-0 lead with a dominant first period. Miller stopped Backstrom’s first great chance, but the Swedish center buried a one-timer from Ovechkin seconds later at 1:18 of the opening period.
Green made it a two-goal lead less than five minutes later. Chris Clark and Eric Fehr won a puck battle in the left corner before Fehr sent a diagonal pass to Green near the right point. His shot hit Derek Roy’s stick and fluttered over Miller’s left shoulder at 6:47.
“Finally got a bounce,” Green said. “I was actually hoping it wouldn’t get touched because I thought I had [the corner] picked, but I got lucky.”
As has been the case often this season, the Caps followed a fantastic first period with a dud in the second. After being held to just four shots in the opening 20 minutes, the Sabres roared back to put 20 shots on rookie netminder Michal Neuvirth in the middle period.
After Paul Gaustad cut Washington’s lead in half, Morrison briefly restored the two-goal advantage at 10:48. He collected the rebound from a Fleischmann shot near the right post and put his stick between his legs to flick the puck under the crossbar for his 10th of the year.
“I really just didn’t have a good angle on my backhand more than anything - I wasn’t trying to be fancy,” said Morrison, who added that he last scored a goal like that with Penticton of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League some 17 years ago. “I was just reacting. A lot of guys do that in practice just fooling around, but in the game you’re not usually set up for it.”
It was Morrison’s first goal in nine games, though he has had several prime opportunities nullified by superb goaltending and has missed a couple of open nets.
Making his fourth start of the season, Neuvirth helped withstand the Sabres’ second-period charge and finished with 32 saves for his second win in as many games.
“He’s getting better each game,” Boudreau said. “We wanted to see if he was going to grow, and I thought it was better than the Edmonton game because there were more chances. He got stronger and made big saves at right times and smothered pucks - you could see that some day he’s going to be a really good goalie.”