- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2011

Nicklas Backstrom grew up in Sweden watching his favorite player, Peter Forsberg, dazzle the NHL with remarkable passing. That was Forsberg’s calling card, even as teammates and coaches knew he had a wicked shot.

Backstrom insists he doesn’t try to play like Forsberg, but the 23-year-old center has many of the same characteristics - such as the innate ability to find a teammate for what should be an easy goal. Reminders are often necessary with a guy such as Backstrom, whose game can be so well-rounded.

“You do tell guys a lot to shoot more,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It’s ingrained in their DNA: some guys are just great passers, and they see the ice so well and they’re so unselfish with the puck that they probably have to tell themselves, ‘Shoot more, shoot more,’ because it’s not a natural thing.”

That has been the case with Backstrom, who’s playing at an elite level. He leads the Washington Capitals with 18 points (five goals and 13 assists) and has been more successful because of an emphasis on shooting the puck.

“Even if I like to pass it, I’ve got to try to shoot it more, too,” he said. “That’s what I try to do this year.”

Backstrom is taking 2.8 shots a game, slightly higher than the 2.6 he had in 2010-11. But his shooting percentage is 14.7, percent up from 8.9.

His defensive game is unquestioned. More so than any other Capitals star, Backstrom backchecks and is almost never a defensive liability. Because of that, Boudreau said it’s often hard to tell just by the stats how good a game Backstrom is having.

Statistically, he’s on pace to be an automatic All-Star, but teammates aren’t the least bit surprised.

“I know some people weren’t too happy with the way he played maybe last year in the playoffs. I always think he plays good, but he’s my style of player,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s doing exactly what we need him to do: He’s passing the puck, he’s burying his chances, he’s being a leader out there for us. He’s doing a great job.”

Backstrom, who Monday was named the NHL’s third star of the week, struggled offensively in last year’s playoffs, putting up no goals and two assists in nine games. But that was when he was playing with a thumb injury.

The oddest number from Backstrom’s less-than-ideal playoff run was 106:13 - the time he went without a shot on net from Game 2 to Game 4 of the second-round series against Tampa Bay. He said he didn’t know if the thumb played a role, but now healthy his game is shining.

“You play better when you’re healthy. I was struggling a little bit there with my thumb,” Backstrom said. “It wasn’t an excuse, I think, last year. It’s just things that happen that you have to deal with. Obviously, I feel better now.”

It shows. Boudreau has made it a point to compliment Backstrom’s defensive game and smart play with and without the puck, saying the Swede can play well without scoring.

He does earn a lot of his $6 million salary doing that, but the Caps count on him to produce, as well. And they’re a much better team when he’s putting up numbers like he has in the first 12 games this season.

“I don’t know how many games now he has two or three points, and it’s very big for the team,” center Marcus Johansson said. “Those two goals that he’s setting up or scoring is important in the end.”

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