Capitals happy they waited on Backstrom

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Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

Center looks like his old self entering the playoffs

The NHL trade deadline came and went on Feb. 27, and Capitals general manager George McPhee chose to stand pat rather than force a bad deal that would do more long-term harm to his team than short-term gain.

But McPhee also was gambling that the Caps still would be better off in the final month of the season than any of his competitors. He was waiting for star center Nicklas Backstrom to recover from a Jan. 3 concussion. It was far from a guarantee. But if it worked, McPhee believed, and his team snuck into the Stanley Cup playoffs, it could beat anyone in the Eastern Conference. He was far from the only one in the organization to feel that way.

That theory will be put to the test this week when seventh-seeded Washington, which finally has a healthy Backstrom back in the lineup, faces No. 2 Boston in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. After a trip home to Sweden to see his family and escape the daily depression he faced at Kettler Iceplex, Backstrom began to sense his post-concussion symptoms easing. He was soon skating again in mid-March and shortly after that participating in practice with teammates.

After some initial trepidation during his first three games back about taking hits on the ice, Backstrom showed flashes of his old self in the regular-season finale against the New York Rangers on Saturday night. He got into a scuffle with Rangers forward Ryan Callahan -- both men went to the penalty box for roughing -- scored a beautiful goal on a pass from teammate Alexander Semin and assisted on a power-play goal by John Carlson. After almost three months off, he's rounding into shape at the perfect time.

"Nicky's never shied away from contact. He's very solid on his skates and a lot of times surprises guys," teammate Brooks Laich said. "He can lay a shoulder into somebody and knock guys off the puck. So he plays in those dirty areas in the corners and the scrums. He's just very slippery and very hard to hit."

Backstrom led Washington with 42 points when he was injured by a Rene Bourque elbow to the jaw in that Jan. 3 game against Calgary. He held that spot until Feb. 9, when Alex Ovechkin finally passed him with a goal and an assist against Winnipeg. The Caps managed an 18-16-6 record without Backstrom. But any hope for a decent playoff run rested on his return.

"Even if they'd got into the playoffs and Nick Backstrom wasn't going to be there, you give [Washington] little chance," NHL Network analyst E.J. Hradek said on the network Sunday. "You're trying to match up guys in games, you're playing against the Boston Bruins and you have no No. 1 center without Nick Backstrom. ... I don't know if they even have an ideal No. 2, so everybody's playing out of slot. With Backstrom back, it just makes the Caps a much different team."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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