This was Nicklas Backstrom's night. Cheers greeted his image on the Verizon Center video screens during pregame warm-ups and even louder ones rained down when he was introduced as part of the starting lineup.
But the real adventure was in the locker room as the Washington Capitals spent the final minutes before stepping onto the ice Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens razzing the man who was returning from a 40-game absence with a concussion.
"Before we went on the ice before warm-up and then especially before the game, there was a lot, a lot of chatter building up about 30, 40 seconds before we were going on the ice," forward Brooks Laich said. "Everyone kind of left with a smile on their face."
The smiles lasted through most of the first period and faded as a two-goal lead disappeared. But the end result, a 3-2 shootout victory, and Backstrom's healthy return, kept the good feelings going. The Caps have won two in a row and now even have a two-point "cushion" on the Buffalo Sabres for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm just happy we won this game," Backstrom said.
There was a lot of pressure on the 24-year-old, who played 19:40 and registered two shots and a minus-1 rating. But the fact that he showed little to no rust despite being out since Jan. 3 didn't really surprise teammates.
"You wouldn't expect [that] from a first game back from most people, but for Nicky you would," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "You just watch the plays, he can escape from two, three guys and make a tape-to-tape pass, flat pass. That's what he brings to the game — is guys get open and he hits them with the puck. He helps everybody be better."
A second-period collapse didn't feel good for Washington, and blowing two-goal leads is a problem players know needs to be addressed in the final three games of the season. But this victory, coupled with the Sabres' regulation loss in Toronto, provides some breathing room.
Escaping with the win had a lot more to do with Michal Neuvirth (39 saves) than Backstrom, as the young goaltender again showed why the Capitals may just be OK moving forward even with Tomas Vokoun hurt. He bailed out just about every defenseman at least once.
"Neuvy played really strong tonight, played really, really well for us," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "He played strong. If it wasn't for him, it would've been a different game tonight."
But it would have been a totally different game if not for the energy boost of Backstrom's return. Players were getting on him about what to expect.
"We were talking about how he was going to get a loud ovation when he got out there for warm-ups. It was pretty loose," forward Keith Aucoin said. "We could tell he was really excited, and it was good to have him back."
What happened on the ice and in the arena before the game was just part of the story on this night, which was almost three months in the making.
"I've never seen players tapping their sticks and stuff in warm-up," Alzner said. "That was a pretty neat feeling for all of us and really helped us kind of feed off everybody's energy."
It's impossible to know whether the Caps can take the energy of Backstrom being back and turn it into a stretch in which they run the table and clinch the Southeast Division title, as they are two points behind the Florida Panthers. But the situation now is that they control their own playoff fate, with Backstrom along for the ride.
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