- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t love talking to reporters in big groups. He has a reputation for being quiet.  But the 24-year-old didn’t seem to mind the cameras Thursday.

After more than two months away from hockey, the Washington Capitals center has now skated for three days in a row and reported no lingering symptoms from a concussion suffered Jan. 3.

Asked if this was the best he has felt since the day then-Canadiens forward Rene Bourque landed an elbow to his head, Backstrom just about beamed.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It can still get better, but as long as I’m on the ice I think I’m getting better.”

Backstrom is still a ways away from returning to game action, but even his skating circles on an empty rink and flipping pucks into a net signified progress. His light-skating session lasted for 34 minutes, and he did not report any setbacks.

“It’s awesome to see Nick feeling way better, for him to be here. For hockey players to be off the ice that long, for him, it’s grueling on him,” coach Dale Hunter said. “For him to start feeling good about himself, come back out here and start skating and handle the puck, which you did since you were 5 years old. He feels privileged to skate right now.”

Privileged not to have to be away from his team. Frustration about not being able to play drove him away for a long time.

He spent two weeks in Sweden, returning over the weekend, and that mental health break may have played a big role in the significant step of returning to the ice. At least Backstrom feels that way.

“Maybe I was changing the atmosphere a little bit. I was getting a little frustrated here when I saw the guys on the ice and obviously I wanted to play,” Backstrom said. “I think it was a good thing for me to be back there and think about other stuff other than hockey. When I got back, I felt better and I can skate now, so that’s good.”

It’s good on a psychological level for the Capitals, too. Four wins in a row have them feeling better about their game, and the center’s presence can only help.

Told of Backstrom’s smile even talking to reporters, defenseman Karl Alzner said, “As soon as we see him around skating, we’re all smiles, too.”

“It’s a very exciting time for the team to be able to have one of your star players back,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “I think he’s the guy that makes this team run and run smoothly. Anytime you can get a guy like that back in the lineup or see improvements and get a little bit of optimism if he’s going to be back, it brings a little spark to the team.”

Thursday was the second time since returning to the ice at the Capitals‘ practice facility this week that Backstrom worked with strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. Backstrom, who has 13 goals and 29 assists this season in 38 games and was the team’s leading scorer well after he went out of the lineup, said this was the hardest he has skated since the concussion.

Still, he was going only at about 40-50 percent speed.

“Well, it isn’t really hard, but it’s hard for me now,” Backstrom said. “But it’s good and we’ll see how it goes, but right now I can tell you that I feel good.”