There’s a certain instinct needed to make the perfect pass. Nicklas Backstrom has it.
On Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals’ star center showed he can turn that instinct on at a moment’s notice, making a couple transcendent plays that had immediate impact in the 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames.
But Backstrom also left the game late in the third period after taking an elbow to the head from forward Rene Bourque, who just recently served a two-game suspension for a hit on Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks. Backstrom was not made available to reporters following the victory and his three-point night, as he was being evaluated by doctors.
“We just removed him from the game,” coach Dale Hunter said. “It was precautionary, and he’s getting evaluated right now. We’ll know more tomorrow.”
Hunter and others in the Caps locker room admitted not seeing the elbow, which drew a two-minute minor, but what players did say was not pretty. Troy Brouwer pointed out Bourque’s reputation, and fellow Swede Marcus Johansson pointed out the obvious on the play, which happened with 9:54 left in the third.
“The puck isn’t even close,” Johansson said, “and it’s very, very unnecessary.”
Backstrom stayed on the ice after taking an elbow that appeared to strike him in the jaw. In total, the center played three shifts after the hit, the last of which ended with 3:19 left.
Before departing, Backstrom put on a show on a night that was previously reserved as Mike Green’s triumphant return from a groin injury.
The Caps started fast, their fastest goal of the season, thanks in large part to Backstrom. An early power play meant a good chance for Backstrom, Johansson and Alex Ovechkin to work some magic. Once Johansson drew two defenders to him and dished it to Backstrom, the 21-year-old found open space and his fellow Swede found him. Backstrom threaded the puck through two Flames players. A few seconds later, Johansson got it to Ovechkin and it was in the back of the net.
“He’s very easy to play with like that,” Johansson said. “I just gave a simple pass to him and he just found me right back and opened everything right up. Not a lot of guys can do that.”
Later, Backstrom made Calgary pay for a slip-up. When a defenseman fell trying to slow Johansson down, Backstrom caught up to the puck below the goal line and looked like he knew Dennis Wideman was coming. A dead-on, tape-to-tape pass reached Wideman’s stick, and the defenseman fired one past Miikka Kiprusoff.
Just like Backstrom and the Caps drew it up.
“It’s unbelievable. He’s got such a good eye for the game. Those hands are pretty good. It’s very fun to play with him; you can get the puck at any time,” Johansson said. “I think he had three points tonight, and he’s pretty good.”
And it shouldn’t be surprising that Backstrom is a wizard with the puck. He now has 29 assists on the season after putting up 47 last season and 68 and 66 the two previous years. This was his fifth straight game with an assists but arguably his best passing performance in a month.
“Nick is a great playmaker. He sees the ice and you can’t teach that,” Hunter said. “It’s a God-given ability. And he has the ability to pass pucks and see who’s the open guy when you can’t really see him. He kind of senses that he’s going to be around there.”