- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Jan. 3 — In the third period of the Washington Capitals’ 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames at Verizon Center, Rene Bourque lifted his right elbow up and struck Nicklas Backstrom in the jaw. Backstrom stayed in the game briefly but had to come out.

“We just removed him from the game,” Caps coach Dale Hunter said that night. “It was precautionary, and he’s getting evaluated right now. We’ll know more tomorrow.”

Backstrom’s teammates were less than pleased with the elbow.

“The puck isn’t even close, and it’s very, very unnecessary,” fellow Swede Marcus Johansson said.

Jan. 4 — Backstrom did not skate as the Caps held an optional practice. His brother, Kristoffer, posted on Twitter that Washington’s leading scorer underwent concussion testing to determine whether the injury was that or an aggravation of migraines. Kristoffer Backstrom tweeted that it was inconclusive.

Jay Beagle, who suffered a concussion in October, called the elbow “uncalled for,” and Troy Brouwer said “it kind of sucks because we’re not able to play [Bourque and the Flames] again this year.”

Later that day, the NHL suspended Bourque five games for what VP of player safety Brendan Shanahan called a “reckless” and “indefensible” play.

Jan. 5 — Backstrom took the ice with his teammates for practice, doing line rushes and smiling and laughing like everything was all right.

“I felt pretty good out there. I’m just following all the steps that has to be made,” an upbeat Backstrom said. “I’m doing what they tell me to do, so we’ll see.”

Asked if Bourque made contact with his jaw, Backstrom said, “I just felt it in my whole head.”

Soon after, Hunter sounded relieved when saying “it’s better than we thought, which is good for us.” Backstrom boarded the team charter to California for the Caps’ two-game road trip at San Jose, Calif., and Los Angeles.

Jan. 6 — Backstrom was not on the ice as the Caps stepped on for practice at HP Pavilion in San Jose, and a team spokesman said he was still being evaluated. Sure enough, he came on about 15 minutes late, switched into the right jersey for his line and shrugged off concern.

“I feel pretty good, actually,” Backstrom said. “I think I’m ready to go. That’s my thoughts.”

Hunter admitted “it’s looking good” for Backstrom to play the next night against the Sharks.

Jan. 7 — Backstrom was conspicuously absent from the morning skate, as the Caps went through line rushes with it looking evident that he would be out. Hunter confirmed soon after that Backstrom was indeed being held out.

“He has to answer how he’s feeling, but we’ve all seen what happens if you put a guy in too early or if he’s not feeling right and it’s just potential for a lot more energy and potential for turning a mole hill into a mountain,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “It’s smart. It’s a good idea. It’s January. It’s not like it’s a do-or-die game.”

The Caps lost to the Sharks 5-2.

Jan. 8 — Backstrom was not on the ice for practice, and neither was defenseman Mike Green, who left the Sharks game early. Hunter had no real update to provide.

Jan. 9 — With the Caps in Los Angeles for a game against the Kings, news came out that Backstrom and Green were both sent home to the D.C. area.

“Right now, it’s no sense having an all-night flight and you get them home early and get a workout in tomorrow and some treatment tomorrow,” Hunter said. “Basically day-to-day. We’re being cautious with both of them.”
Without Backstrom and Green, the Caps lost to the Kings 5-2.

Jan. 11 — The Caps placed Backstrom on injured reserve, retroactive to Jan. 3.

“We’re being cautious with him still,” Hunter said. “He’s not feeling 100 percent, so we’re being careful.”

The Caps’ coach added there was no time frame “right now” for Backstrom to return to skating.

Jan. 12 — A sure-fire All-Star based on his stats, 13 goals and 29 assists, Backstrom was not on the roster announced by the NHL. Dennis Wideman and Alex Ovechkin got the nod for the Caps, and the idea seemed to be that Backstrom’s uncertain status was the reason for his being left off.

At night, the Flames traded Bourque to the Montreal Canadiens, who were coincidentally on the Caps’ schedule for the following week.

Jan. 17 — Addressing reporters to talk about Green’s sports hernia surgery, general manager George McPhee did not rule out Backstrom returning before the All-Star break.

“Nick’s doing really well,” McPhee said. “He feels good. I’m, I guess, happy to report that he’s progressing.”

He added that the Caps were going to be “real careful because we want this to be a one time thing and something we never have to worry about again.”

Jan. 18 — John Erskine, Hunter and the Caps said all the right things the morning before facing Bourque about needing points more than retribuation, but Matt Hendricks needed only nine seconds into the Canadiens forward’s first shift to challenge him to a fight. Hendricks probably lost the fight, but teammates lauded him for stepping up.

“That’s the game of hockey. There’s consequences that you have to pay for actions. He followed the code. I asked him and that was it,” Hendricks said. “He said yep. I’m sure he wanted to get it over with as early as he could as well.”

Jan. 23 — Backstrom stepped onto the ice by himself wearing a hat, red hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants. Not taking shots, he stick-handled a bit and appeared to be skating at half speed.

He came off after just five minutes.

He was not made available to speak to reporters.

“Yeah, he skated,” Hunter said. “So that’s good. He’s back on the ice and we’ll go from there.”

Backstrom has not skated since. Those five minutes represented his only time on ice in the past month, as he has missed 15 straight games.

Feb. 11 — Backstrom addresses reporters at the Caps’ practice facility for the first time since skating in San Jose.

“I’m not a hundred percent to skate right now, so we’ll see when it’s going to be time for me to take the ice,” Backstrom said. “Right now, I’m taking it day by day and see how I feel.”

Backstrom’s off-and-on presence around the team was tough, because the 24-year-old was frustrated to be at the rink and unable to skate.

“That’s the worst part is coming in and not being able to do anything. Seeing the guys is good for about five minutes and then you’re like, ‘OK, I want to get back into the routine of things,’ and after that it’s just terrible being around here,” Beagle said. “It’s almost better to go home for a couple weeks right after the injury because it’s one of the worst things coming to the rink and not being able to work out or do anything. And mentally, that’s just the most frustrating thing.”

Backstrom hosted a team Super Bowl party as teammates tried to keep him in good spirits.

“The best thing for healing is positive thinking. It’s a big thing,” forward Jason Chimera said. “You’ve got to keep positive through it all; there’s going to be times where you’re pretty [ticked] off, but you’ve got to stay positive no matter how hard it seems. I think you’ve got to keep a positive frame of mind.”

Feb. 27 — On the day of the trade deadline, the Capitals put Backstrom on long-term injured reserve retroactive to January, a move that McPhee said was made just in case a deal could be worked out that would require the extra $6.7 million in cap space.

The GM again did not know if Backstrom would be able to return this season.

“Don’t know,” he said. “Hope so but we don’t know.

“I don’t have an answer for you on that. I wish I did,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to plan if you have an answer. But I don’t have an answer.”

McPhee did not make any trades at the deadline, voicing confidence in what he thought his team could do if Backstrom came back.

“Well, I certainly think we’re capable of making the playoffs with this team right now,” McPhee said. “If Nicky Backstrom came back, it certainly would improve our chances of being able to win a Cup. We can make the playoffs with this team. And if he comes back, we can beat anybody in this conference.”

March 5 — A report surfaced out of Sweden that Backstrom was back in his native country to see a concussion specialist. Roughly translated, the story said the hope was to “solve the mystery” of why the Caps star has not improved enough.

Washington confirmed Backstrom was in Sweden, but said he was there to visit with family and get away from a hockey environment. The Capitals said he was not there to see a specialist.

He returned March 10, according to a team spokesman.

March 13 — Backstrom skated at the Caps’ practice facility for the first time since Jan. 23, beginning a stretch of 10 times on the ice in 11 days. He worked out with strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish and then addressed reporters March 15.

He was all smiles, saying this was “absolutely” the best he had felt since the concussion.

“It can still get better but as long as I’m on the ice I think I’m getting better,” he said.

Backstrom credited going to Sweden for his turnaround, but did not provide many details.

“Well, maybe I was changing the atmosphere a little bit, I was getting a little frustrated here when I saw the guys on the ice, and obviously I wanted to play,” he said. “I think it was a good thing for me to be back there and think about other stuff other than hockey. When I got back, I felt better and I can skate now so that’s good.”

March 24 — Even more good news: Backstrom was cleared to fully participate in practices, without restriction. That means contact and all.

Backstrom drew cheers from fans in attendance, and teammates tapped their sticks on the ice when he stepped on.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for 2 ½ months. I’m kind of happy right now. It’s good to practice with the guys,” Backstrom said. “It feels pretty good out there. I haven’t been skating long, but it feels all right right now.”

There is still no timetable for Backstrom’s return to game action. Trainer Greg Smith said it’s about conditioning now, though Backstrom must pass a neuropsychological test before being cleared by doctors.

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