No one seemed to wear the Washington Capitals’ playoff failures more in the locker room in years past than Nicklas Backstrom.
He would sit in front of his locker in despair, searching for answers when there didn’t seem to be any.
If this was 2017, 2016 … pick a year, and the Capitals had failed to score on a five-minute power play in a playoff game like they did Saturday in the second period against the Carolina Hurricanes, Backstrom would have been sitting in front of his locker crushed by the failure of what likely would have been a loss.
But this is 2019, and because 2018 happened — a Stanley Cup championship for this group of hockey players — Backstrom sat in front of his locker Saturday afternoon with a smile on his face trying to explain how the hero of the game, Brooks Orpik, scored the winning goal in a 4-3 overtime Game 2 win over Carolina, giving Washington a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven opening round playoff series, with Game 3 Monday night in Raleigh, North Carolina.
When the scrum ended, I asked Backstrom about this — how he seemed to suffer the most during those painful playoff seasons, and what has changed.
It’s the theme of this Capitals team defending their Stanley Cup title — a disaster in the making doesn’t have to be a disaster.
Failing to score on a five-minute power play and giving the opponent momentum doesn’t mean you’ve lost. Losing a 3-2 lead in the final minutes of play and being forced into overtime doesn’t mean you’ve lost.
It seems like a simple notion.
But this new Capitals’ mantra illustrates how much the perennial playoff failures were in their heads before last year’s breakthrough success.
“It’s something we learned last year,” Backstrom answered. “We shouldn’t put it on ourselves when you have a good or bad game. If you lose, it’s something we learned last year — just move on. Things are going to happen. You’re not going to go 16-0 in the playoffs. Just have to move forward to the next game. We had that positive attitude in the locker room last year.”
Backstrom, 31, deserves all the good things that come his way. He has three goals in the first two games, including the first score to give Washington the 1-0 lead over Carolina in both of them. And he has made tough defensive plays on shot blocks on the other end.
In a play that won’t show up on the stat sheet, when Alex Ovechkin made a brilliant pass to Tom Wilson to take a 3-2 lead about halfway through the third period, it was Backstrom in front of Ovechkin blocking out the Carolina defender like Trent Williams leading Adrian Peterson down the field.
“Nick had a phenomenal game in Game 1,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. “Then tonight — who is out there three on five (when the Capitals faced a 5 on 3 for a minute late in the second period)? Who is out there taking face offs against their top guys? This player (Backstrom) is so underrated. He is the guy for us year after year, game in and game out.
“These are the best two back-to-back games I’ve seen Nick Backstrom play in the five years I’ve been here.”
This idea of avoiding the fatalist notion that bad times in a game will lead to more bad times is a real thing. Reirden spoke about it after Saturday’s win.
“One of the more understated parts of our game is the in-game changes in momentum and how important it is when you go on the ice, your response when a couple of extended shifts don’t go your way,” he said. “They’re (the opponent) going to get momentum, but as quickly as we can, how can we stop it. Every game is a fresh start. It’s a huge part of the team having success is understanding those key moments.”
And for Backstrom, not every Stanley Cup playoff season has to end with him sitting in front of his locker with a blank stare on his face. He still has the smile from last year. They haven’t wiped that off his face.
Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.