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Supporting cast takes spotlight for Caps

- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 5, 2009

It has been good for the long-term prognosis of the Washington Capitals that they've continued to win games despite a rash of injuries.

It is even better that their two young sidekicks to Alex Ovechkin have proved they can take over a game when their Russian pal is not around to help.

Ovechkin was ejected in the first period Monday night at Carolina, but Nicklas Backstrom helped carry the offense in a 3-2 victory against the Hurricanes. Three days later it was Alexander Semin's turn to step into the spotlight with Ovechkin serving the first half of a two-game suspension. Semin had four points in a 6-2 pasting of Florida.

"To win, our best players overall have to be our best players on the ice," captain Chris Clark said. "It's that way for both teams, but I think for the most part we have the best 'best players' going into games. So if they're the best players on the ice [that night], there's a good chance we're going to win."

Ovechkin missed six games because of an upper-body strain near his left shoulder last month. It was an opportunity for supporting stars like Backstrom and Semin to move out of Ovechkin's shadow, but they both failed to seize the opportunity.

Semin had two goals (in the same game) and no assists and was a minus-2. Backstrom had no goals and four assists and also was a minus-2. Other players, such as forward Tomas Fleischmann and defenseman Brian Pothier, increased their production, and the team's depth was the biggest reason for winning four of the six games.

"I don't know, but we were still winning," Backstrom said of those six games. "It doesn't matter who scores the goals or gets the points as long as we're winning. I'm happy we're winning. To play without Alex, it is tough, of course, but we're trying to do the best we can."

The Caps likely will get Ovechkin back Monday against Tampa Bay and Mike Knuble for the next game, Wednesday at Buffalo. Provided there are no more injuries, it will be a chance for the Caps to ice their top nine forwards together for the first time this season.

But there is always the chance that Washington will be without their franchise player again, and it could come at a more crucial point in the season. For the Caps, it will be nice to know Backstrom and Semin will have memories of dominant performances without Ovechkin to lean on.

"When we have Alex, we're a better team, but without him we can still win games," forward Brooks Laich said. "When Alex is out, [coach Bruce Boudreau] says, 'Hey, Alex is out and he scores a goal a game, so somebody's got to pick that up for him.' Guys look upon themselves and say, 'OK, I am going to be better tonight. It is a big game for me tonight.' "

Semin credited some of his success Thursday to the guys he was skating with - Backstrom and Laich. It is a coalition Boudreau has called upon before, and with great results.

When Washington's offense struggled against Philadelphia in the 2008 playoffs, the newly formed line of Laich, Backstrom and Semin carried the offense and helped the Caps get back in the series. The trio saw time together again in last year's postseason run and earlier this season when Boudreau put Ovechkin with Knuble and Brendan Morrison.

"We work well together. Nick is a distributor of the puck, and [Semin] and I like to get open," Laich said. "[Semin] especially is a shooter, and I am able to retrieve pucks and get it to those guys and go to the net. We have a little bit of everything on that line, plus we have a lot of fun on the ice. We communicate well and we're friends, so it all works out well."

Added Backstrom: "The key is the centerman, I think. No, the coach puts us together and we work hard out there and get opportunities to score, so it is working good."