Sweat dripped from Nicklas Backstrom's hair just minutes after he stepped off the ice following some tiring battle drills with Washington Capitals teammate Jay Beagle. It was another step in Backstrom's preparation to return to game action after missing almost three months with a concussion.
Physically, Backstrom looked ready.
"We said the other day that he looks as good as the other guys that have been playing all year," assistant coach Dean Evason said.
Gauging his lungs, the 24-year-old said, "I haven't felt better."
Judging by that, it's very possible Backstrom makes his return Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens and the same Rene Bourque (then with the Calgary Flames) whose flagrant elbow knocked him out for the past 40 games.
"It depends how I feel. Everything's possible," Backstrom said. "It's possible that I could play last game, too. It depends how I feel tomorrow and this afternoon and stuff. I felt good out there today, too, so we'll see."
Coach Dale Hunter would make no official confirmation, deferring to Saturday's morning skate. As he sat in the locker room, Backstrom gave off a nervous vibe about where he needs to get to before he can play.
"I think it's more about that you're worried about hitting the head again and maybe I'm out for longer than three months. That's the biggest problem I see," Backstrom said. "You just got to be mentally ready to face a hockey game."
Getting over that appears to be Backstrom's biggest challenge, something Beagle and Mike Green, two teammates who have dealt with concussions, said was common among players returning from the injury. That could happen in one shift, or take a bit longer.
"It's something that mentally once he gets out there and he starts getting physical and takes a few hits and gives a few hits, the mental part of it's like, 'OK, my head's fine' and you can get back into your regular routine out there," Beagle said.
In practice, Beagle can hold back and do what coaches asked: Knock Backstrom around a little bit as a way to adjust to contact. "I was just trying to rub him out, shoulder on shoulder, make sure I don't hit his head," he said.
But in real games, opponents won't be so gentle. One big hit to the head and who knows what the future could hold for Backstrom. Sidney Crosby is a cautionary example, following his concussion and extended absence.
Hunter wasn't concerned about Backstrom taking hits, though, because of his awareness.
"He's been one of these players that has great vision on the ice. I haven't seen, through the years, him take big hits," the Caps' coach said. "Some guys take big hits because their vision, they don't see the guys coming as much and identifying where everybody is on the ice. For him to get clipped like he did was a total cheap shot from the blind side; it wasn't a clean hit."
There's always that danger again, but Backstrom wasn't concerned about Bourque being on the ice if the return does come Saturday at Verizon Center.
And count Evason among those not worried about Backstrom's apprehension in the corners about getting hit.
"I think you just got to get the thought process in your head that you just got to go compete and get all the negative thoughts out and just play the game hard, without any hesitation and he'll be fine," Evason said. "Whenever you anticipate something bad to happen or you're expecting something bad, then normally it does. I think he's positive enough that he wont let that bother him."
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