- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nicklas Backstrom keeps taking steps in the right direction in his recovery from a concussion, and now it seems like his return to the Washington Capitals‘ lineup could be coming closer than many expected.

Backstrom passed a neuropsychological baseline test “with flying colors” Tuesday, general manager George McPhee said, which is the final hurdle for the center to play after missing almost three months with the injury.

“That’s real good news for us,” McPhee said. “We’ll see where it goes from here, but it looks like the worst is behind for Nicky.”

Backstrom has missed 38 games since suffering a concussion Jan. 3 after an elbow to the head from Rene Bourque. He just got cleared for full participation in practice Saturday.

Now, all that’s left is Backstrom getting into game shape.

“Just making sure he’s in good shape and he’s comfortable,” McPhee said. “It’s going to be his decision.”

On Monday, Backstrom was cautiously optimistic after his first “real” practice in 2½ months, with all of his teammates on the ice.

“I’m not a hundred percent yet, but I’m getting there. It takes a little time,” the 24-year-old said. “It felt good. But I think it’s going to be even better.”

McPhee, who is on the NHL’s concussion panel and knows a lot about these injuries, was naturally concerned during this process that Backstrom might not be able to get back on the ice this season.

“You just never know with these things. I didn’t know whether he’d even be ready for next year. You don’t know when these things happen whether it’s going to be a day, a month, a year, two years. You don’t know,” the general manager said. “We’re just really relieved today that he feels great and he’s out practicing again. He’s a fabulous player that we need and this league needs. These are the guys you want to watch, the real difference-makers.”

Backstrom has been symptom-free since returning from Sweden the weekend of March 10. He spent time there on a mental-health break, and it worked.

“You never know what’s going to turn for a player,” McPhee said. “He went home during the All-Star break and started feeling better, and then he came back and sort of stagnated and hit a threshold that he couldn’t get beyond so we sent him home again and he started feeling better.”

Backstrom has skated 14 of the past 15 days now.

The Capitals play Thursday at the Boston Bruins, Saturday at home against the Montreal Canadiens and Monday at the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s uncertain which of those games Backstrom will play in, or whether this process takes longer.

But the Caps insist they won’t rush Backstrom back.

“I would’ve liked him in the lineup 50 games ago. Obviously, he’s a terrific player, but it’s got to be his decision. We’re not going to put any pressure on him to play. He’s got to be comfortable,” McPhee said. “We’re not going to put this kid at risk by telling him we need him to play, etc. He’s a grown-up and he knows how he feels, and he’ll make the decision as to whether he plays or not.”



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