- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2018

Jay Beagle doesn’t ask Nicklas Backstrom how he’s feeling. He knows how annoying it can be when teammates constantly check in when a player is dealing with an injury.

But the question might not be needed, anyway. 

Backstrom appears closer than ever to returning from a right-hand injury. The Capitals center is a “game-time decision” Thursday for Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but showed considerable progress in the team’s morning skate — rotating in on a rush and practicing on the Capitals’ first power play unit.

Backstrom has yet to receive medical clearance from the doctors, though that can change before the Capitals take the ice.

If Backstrom does return, he has the potential to swing the series, even with the Capitals already up 2-1.

Beagle said Backstrom’s absence was felt Tuesday during the Capitals’ 4-2 loss in Game 3.

“You can’t replace a guy like him,” Beagle said. “He’s one of our key leaders and one of our best players. He’s a guy who makes this team click and makes us go. Obviously to get him back would be huge.”

Backstrom has been a “game-time decision” for the entire series, but this is the closest he has looked to making his return. He has missed the last four games since exiting Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hand injury on May 5.

Backstrom took a rush on the the third line alongside Chandler Stephenson and Brett Connolly. In that scenario, Andre Burakovsky was the odd man out, while coach Barry Trotz kept the second line, centered by Lars Eller, intact.

On the power play unit, Burakovsky was back in the lineup on the second unit, suggesting one of the fourth-line forwards could be out of the lineup, if Backstrom plays. 

The Capitals have done a surprisingly adequate job of playing without Backstrom. Eller has stepped up, and Washington has been disciplined on defense.

Tampa, however, took Game 3, in part, because of its two power play goals. Backstrom is a key member of the Capitals’ penalty kill, and the unit has suffered without him.

“I thought a lot of the Tampa Bay — and [Lightning coach Jon Cooper] will say the same thing — his top guys made a difference,” Trotz said. “And Nicky is one of those top guys that makes a difference for us all the time when you need them to make the difference.

“He plays every aspect of our game. He plays power play, penalty kill, late game. Defending or trying to create. I can use him as a shut down guy. There’s so many elements that Nicky provides.”

If medically cleared, Trotz said he doesn’t need Backstrom to be 100 percent because “no one is completely healthy this time of year.”

This means when Backstrom suits up, he could be limited in taking faceoffs. In Game 5, winger T.J. Oshie was taking draws for the 30-year-old center.

Backstrom first started skating with the team on Sunday before Game 2, increasing his workload through each morning skate.

In the playoffs, Backstrom has three goals and 10 assists.

“It would be pretty cool,” forward Alex Ovechkin said. “So, we’ll see. He wants it to [be] back. He wants to be part of the success and he’s our best center. If he’s going to be in the lineup, it’s going to give us more room to create with the lines and the team’s going to be happy. He’s our leader. We all love him. But we’ll see what happens.”


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