- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It was the type of play - a split-second reaction - that only works for the NHL’s elite players.

Nicklas Backstrom picked the puck out of a mass of bodies in front of the net as the clock wound down. A sliver of ice opened up, and Backstrom deftly slid the puck to his linemate for hockey’s version of an alley-oop.

Alex Ovechkin slammed home the one-timer with authority, as the dynamic duo had rescued a point for the Washington Capitals against the New Jersey Devils with one second left Saturday night.

“That’s what kind of player he is,” Caps center Michael Nylander said. “It was a great play, and he has great patience. It was at just the right time.”

Added Backstrom: “I didn’t know how much time I have. I just got the puck and saw [Ovechkin] at the far post. I didn’t have a choice; the goalie was down there, so I decided to pass. I was a little lucky there. I had a little bit of room - and this time it works.”

It might be the signature moment from the Backstrom/ Ovechkin combination this season, and it was one of the best games of the 20-year-old Swedish center’s career. After a slow start to his sophomore campaign, Backstrom has started lighting up opponents.

He has 10 points in his past three games, including five Saturday against the Devils. An 11-point week in four contests was enough to earn him No. 1 star honors Monday from the NHL, just ahead of his buddy Ovechkin, the second star.

“I don’t know what happened, but I hope he finds that button and keeps it on,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The hot streak started the week before. November began with an embarrassing 5-0 loss at Buffalo; to that point, Backstrom had zero goals and four secondary assists in 10 games. The next two games, Backstrom did not register a point, but there was a change in his play. He was generating opportunities on nearly every shift, but the statistical rewards did not come.

In the past five games. Backstrom has two goals and 10 assists and is plus-10. At plus-11 for the season, he entered Monday tied for third in the league.

“Nicky is such a good passer and sees the ice so well; when he is playing well, he is creating so much offense and he is creating a lot of opportunities for other guys to score,” defenseman Mike Green said. “He has been one of our best players lately.”

During the same span, Ovechkin has also found his form. The reigning league MVP has five goals and five assists in the past four games after notching only two goals and eight points in the first 13 games.

As a tandem, it’s the chicken-or-the-egg argument. Some pundits say Ovechkin is the reason Backstrom is racking up assists, but the sophomore playmaker might have helped coax Ovechkin out of his slumber.

“I think he has the puck more,” Nylander said. “He goes to get it and he make plays. He’s also making himself open to get the puck. Of course the better you are playing, the more confident you are - and [he is] going back to the level he can be at. I know he’s happy about the level he’s at but also wants to be even better.”

When Backstrom was not producing at this pace earlier in the season, there was speculation about the reason for his slow start. Was his ankle bothering him from a preseason sprain? Is he naturally a slow starter? Maybe the most prominent query: Did he show up for camp out of shape?

“Conditioning wasn’t a factor,” Boudreau said. “In fact, we sent [strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish to Sweden], and I think his conditioning and weight was almost identical but distributed better. He was in better shape.”

Backstrom agreed.

“I think this season I was a little bit afraid from my foot at the beginning,” he said. “Later on, I was feeling better and I was starting to do more stuff out there and [being] more physical.”

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