- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2016

When the Washington Capitals play the Pittsburgh Penguins, the headlines invariably read “Alexander Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby.” The video montages include highlight reels of spectacular Ovechkin and Crosby goals. Caps-Penguins, after all, means the best goal scorer in the NHL for the last 10 seasons versus the best player in the league the last 10 seasons.

But maybe it’s time Nicklas Backstrom got some above-the-title billing in the NHL’s biggest rivalry.

From the very first face-off of the Capitals 7-1 win over the Penguins Wednesday, it was Backstrom who took the opening draw against Crosby. Backstrom, flanked by left wing Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie, would essentially matchup with Crosby for every one of his shifts. 

That’s the exact tactic the Capitals used against the Penguins last season in their second-round playoff matchup. Playing against a player like Crosby is a role and responsibility that Backstrom enjoys.

“I mean, I was going against him all playoffs too and it’s always a challenge when you play players like that,” Backstrom said. “He’s a top player in the league. As a player, you should take pride to play against him.”

In the playoffs, the tactic worked. Crosby finished with just two assists in six games in the series. In the previous playoff series for the Penguins, Crosby recorded eight points in just five games against the New York Rangers.  

In the most recent installment of the Crosby-Backstrom matchup, Crosby wasn’t able to record a point. That’s just the second in 10 games this season Crosby has been held scoreless. That’s such a rarity that Crosby has more multi-point games this season than games without points.

Backstrom has simply found a way to play against Crosby, and it all starts with positioning.

“You need to make sure you get on the right side all the time and be good defensively first of all,” Backstrom said. “That hopefully [leads to] good chances offensively.”

That trend extends into the last regular season, when coach Barry Trotz made the decision to utilize Backstrom against Crosby. According to Hockey Stats, Backstrom played against Crosby for 33:51 minutes in 2015-16. Crosby recorded just one assist in that time. Backstrom scored a goal. 

Looking into who is actually dictating play against the other, it’s generally Backstrom. In the history of their rivalry, Backstrom has played against Crosby for 144:44 minutes of even strength play. Backstrom has had 62.18 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play, while Crosby has just 53.89.

Backstrom and his linemates generally take more than eight shot attempts per 60 minutes of play than Crosby and his linemates, suggesting Backstrom and his linemates generally possess the puck more when he plays against Crosby.

On Wednesday, Backstrom recorded two goals and three assists, his fifth-career five-point game and his first since Dec. 10, 2013. Three of his points came at even strength, and Crosby was on the ice for two.

“I think [Backstrom’s] line today was unstoppable,” Ovechkin said. “They had lots of goals and lots of points.”

Backstrom certainly received help from his two linemates in Oshie and Johansson. Oshie himself had four points — two goals and two assists — and he says skating with Backstrom, a player who is both offensively skilled and plays a defensively-responsible game, makes things very easy.

“I think we’ve done a good job reading off of each other,” Oshie said. “We’ve done a good job in our d-zone obviously with Nick down there. We’re finding it right now. It feels good to put some in the back of the net.”

Backstrom’s most recent effort helped the Capitals get a goal scoring monkey off of their back. In the Capitals’ previous four games, they had just five goals. Some of the Capitals’ top playmakers were also having a difficult time generating some offense. The big win also represented Washington’s first regulation win since Nov. 5. Backstrom hopes that his and his team’s efforts kick off a nice string of wins.

“Hopefully [this win] will give us confidence moving forward,” Backstrom said. “It’s something to build off, I think. We’re in a good position in the standings, but, I mean, we haven’t played our best, so hopefully we can get going here and build from this.”

The 10-4-2 Capitals next host the 8-8-1 Detroit Red Wings Friday night.


• Tommy Chalk can be reached at tchalk@washingtontimes.com.

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