- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

Since the Washington Capitals were left beaten and battered after a four-game road trip late last month, they have reeled off 11 victories in 15 games despite a revolving-door roster besieged by injuries.

Instead of just maintaining pace or falling slightly, the Caps have surged and are tied with the New York Rangers for the second-most points in the Eastern Conference.

While the players who have filled in from the minors have performed admirably, there is no secret about the Caps’ success in the past month: It all starts with the team’s top line. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov have been as dominant a trio as there is in the NHL, and they are carrying the Caps’ offense.

“I think we are pretty much alike,” Backstrom said. “I’m more like a passer, but [Kozlov] and [Ovechkin] can both pass and score. We can give the puck back to each other, and I think that’s good. I think we need it. I think we have a good chemistry between each other - and that’s why it is working.”

Ovechkin is the headliner, and his recent play has conjured up memories of his MVP campaign from a season ago. He has 14 goals and 22 points in 15 games since the Caps returned from that road trip.

In the past two games, Ovechkin helped rescue his club from a 4-0 deficit with two goals at Madison Square Garden and then registered one of the top goals in the NHL this season against Buffalo at Verizon Center on Friday night.

“When you have Alex on the line, you’re never going to pass too much, because he shoots all the time. Those are two good guys to set him up with the puck,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I like the makeup of the line and they get along well, so why not stick with it?”

Ovechkin is now two points behind Sidney Crosby for second in the league in points. While he is certainly on the short list for leaders in the Hart Trophy derby, an argument can be made for Backstrom as the team’s best player of late.

The 21-year-old Swede had another slow start this season, posting only four points in his first 12 games, but he has been lighting up opponents since. He has 10 goals and 24 assists in the past 24 games, a pace that would leave him on the cusp of a 100-point campaign should he continue it for the remainder of this season.

Backstrom has been more assertive in his sophomore season, weaving through defenders with the puck and connecting on a couple of passes each game that other players might not even attempt - out of fear of a turnover or because they just didn’t see the opening.

Thanks to his recent tear - which includes five goals and 18 points since the road trip - Backstrom was fifth in the league in assists and tied for 14th in points after Friday night’s games.

“You’re going to see him get better and better,” Boudreau said. “By the time he’s 25, he’s going to be scary good. One time I said he reminds me of Peter Forsberg, and I might change that - he’s more like a Ron Francis. He plays both ends of the ice, he makes plays and he is unassuming, but the next thing you know he is in the top of the league in scoring.”

Then there is Kozlov, the “glue guy” for the line. He has four goals in the past four games and 15 points in this 11-4 run by the Caps.

“Basically you can put any third forward with those two guys and it is good,” Kozlov said. “They are unbelievable players. Alex is a great scorer and Nicky is an excellent centerman. He sees the ice so well, gives you the puck at the right moment, right time. So I just enjoy it.”

Kozlov’s humility is noble but a bit misguided in this case. The Caps tried several players on the right side with Ovechkin and Backstrom last season, and the line didn’t truly take off until Kozlov settled in. Even this season, Boudreau has inserted Alexander Semin there on occasion, but Kozlov’s greatest strength is the final ingredient for this line’s dominance.

At 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, Kozlov is, in Boudreau’s words, as “strong as an ox.” There have been times in his mercurial career that Kozlov’s skeptics have said he doesn’t put that massive frame to use enough, but that can’t be said of late. He has been a menace to opposing teams along the wall and behind the net, winning puck battles with a scary combination of slick hands and brawn.

“He is good with the puck,” Backstrom said. “We have longer shifts in the offensive zone so we don’t have to go back and forth. That’s what he is so good at - keep the puck, protect the puck.”

Added Kozlov: “When you control the puck, of course you can create more chances. And this helps the team get going and change the momentum when you control the puck in their zone.”

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