The Washington Capitals have played the past 40 games without Nicklas Backstrom. Karl Alzner admitted last week that you can forget about a player’s impact after so long, and Brooks Laich made it clear that he and his teammates were comfortable in that time.
But Laich’s eyes glowed as he talked about Backstrom’s return Saturday night.
“But he’s a welcome addition. We get our buddy back,” he said. “He’s an emotional lift. Really well-liked guy in the room, very respected guy in the room. And then a world-class hockey player. So it’s a good day.”
A good day: Backstrom will return to game action against the Montreal Canadiens after missing almost three months with a concussion suffered Jan. 3. Just like when he was cleared for cotnact, it’s a day the should-have-been-All-Star has been waiting for.
“I’m really excited. It’s going to be fun to play again,” Backstrom said. “It’s a big game for us, and we need all those points. I’m excited to be back in such an important game.”
Backstrom isn’t getting eased in, either. He’ll start on the Caps’ top line between Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.
Despite so much time away, it seemed like a no-brainer call for coach Dale Hunter.
“We need Nicky and his type of game. He does it easy because his mind’s so good at the hockey game. I’ll watch his minutes and see how he is. But he’s a special player; he’s got to play special minutes,” Hunter said. “He’s always been there. We need him to play, and he’s ready to go, and we’ll put him with good players.”
And put him back on the power play, too, where Hunter said Backstrom is a “natural.” It doesn’t even matter that he hasn’t gotten a lot of practice with that unit; he’ll go back to his spot on the half wall.
“I’ve been playing power play all my life. So hopefully I know how to do that,” Backstrom said. “You’ve got to watch the video and see what Montreal is doing. Hopefully, we can get that going and score some goals.”
Even without scoring goals, Backstrom, still fifth on the team with 42 points, makes an impact. The smiles around the locker room when Backstrom’s name was brought up were enough to show what he mans intangibly.
“It’s good for everybody to have Nicky back. He’s one of our best players, and he’s irreplaceable,” forward Johansson said. “We need all the games we can get now so having him back in the lineup will be nice.”
Mike Green said the Caps “definitely lost an element of our game that has hurt us” with Backstrom unable to play. But everyone insisted this was the right time and that the 24-year-old wasn’t being rushed.
“If he’s not comfortable coming back, we wouldn’t force him in. We’re at the mercy of him and how he feels,” Laich said. “And it’s an exciting time. Certainly to have him back before the playoffs is a huge boost.”
Hunter said, “it’s been a battle” for Backstrom to get back — more than two months and just five minutes on the ice, then a trip to Sweden and seemingly sudden recovery. The post-concussion symptoms have been gone for more than two weeks now, and he has skated 18 of the past 19 days.
The return comes against Rene Bourque, the player whose cheap-shot elbow caused Backstrom’s concussion.
“You know what? I don’t really care about that,” Backstrom said. “It happened, and I’m not going to waste any energy on it.”
No matter the opponent, no matter that extra storyline, it’s the perfect opportunity for Backstrom to return with four games left and the Capitals trying to finish out a run to the playoffs. They control their fate in the home stretch, and Backstrom wants to be leading the way.
“All of the games is going to be like a playoff game now. I think it’s good for me to get back on that kind of level,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready right away, and I’m hoping to be.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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