Washington Capitals players tapped their sticks on the ice as fans cheered when Nicklas Backstrom stepped onto the ice Saturday for his first practice with the team in more than two months. A concussion has sidelined him since early January, and it was clear at that moment and many others that the Caps miss him. Badly.
"Everybody knows we miss him," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "He's that kind of guy we need right now."
Coming down the stretch, of course the Caps could use Backstrom, who was on his way to an All-Star appearance before Rene Bourque's elbow to the head derailed his season. A trip to the playoffs is on the line, with each game being called "he biggest game of the year" or the "seventh game" of a playoff series. It'd be nice to have the team MVP around.
"The beginning of the season he was probably one of the best players in the league if not the best player in the league. He was playing lights-out for us," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "He is a massive part of this team that we would love to have and need to have."
But this isn't a broken thumb, like what Backstrom played through in last year's playoffs. This isn't a hip pointer, which defenseman John Carlson finished the Tampa Bay series with. This is a concussion, a brain injury that can linger even into retirement.
So despite the high stakes, it would be foolish to rush him back. General manager George McPhee, even in announcing Tuesday that Backstrom passed a neuropsychological test with "flying colors," agreed.
"I would've liked him in the lineup 50 games ago. Obviously, he's a terrific player, but it's got to be his decision," McPhee said. "We're not going to put any pressure on him to play. He's got to be comfortable. We're not going to put this kid at risk by telling him we need him to play."
Backstrom is the franchise's building block down the middle, and the chances of winning the Stanley Cup this season are absurdly remote even if he does return.
That's mostly because this Backstrom won't be 100 percent right away. Defenseman Mike Green, who returned from his concussion last season just in time for Game 1 of the playoffs, smiled and said: "With Nicky, you never know, he's so good. He can probably come back and be fine." There still will be a major adjustment.
Nicklas Backstrom in late March and early April won't be the same Nicklas Backstrom who had 13 goals and 39 assists Jan. 3. The 24-year-old remained the Caps' leading scorer until Feb. 9 despite missing those 16 games.
Backstrom admitted Saturday that this process of getting back into game shape is like being back in training camp. But as much as he wants to play, he has seen Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, teammate Jay Beagle and others go through this process and appreciates the severity of concussions.
"I want to be back as soon as possible, but you've got to be careful and make sure you're a hundred percent before you go back because you don't want to get any setbacks," Backstrom said. "That's what we're looking forward to and hope that I can be back as soon as possible. That's my goal."
Tuesday, coach Dale Hunter refused to speculate about how close Backstrom is to playing, deferring to trainer Greg Smith.
"I don't know," Hunter said. "We'll have to wait and see."
Wait. And wait. And wait some more. If the Caps can't manage to beat the Montreal Canadiens this weekend at home and the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road next week without Backstrom, they don't deserve to make the playoffs.
Plus, it's not like these are December games against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"It's not like he's jumping in in the first two months of the season," Beagle said. "We're right in the thick of things."
McPhee went on record Feb. 27 saying "if [Backstrom] comes back, we can beat anybody in this conference." Consider Crosby, NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins or Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, and that's hard to envision.
So why press Backstrom into action? McPhee was right about the notion that this team, even with Backstrom out, can make the playoffs. A soft stretch coming up and even softer competition for the final playoff spots fuel optimism.
Backstrom has been symptom-free since he returned from his native Sweden in mid-March. Of course his friend Green knows from experience the need to take things slow.
"Nobody can tell him how he feels except for him," Green said. "Yeah, I did mention that to him: If you still have symptoms, take care of yourself because one hit and you're back to square one."
That's the last place the Caps and Backstrom need to be. He has seven years left on his deal with several of those in what should be the prime of his career.
So as much as players want him back on the bench and fans want to see him on the ice, Backstrom shouldn't be back until he's more than ready. Even if that means April. Even if that means September.
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