It was a moment of anger that has put the Capitals in a precarious position.
Nicklas Backstrom cross-checked Boston forward Rich Peverley in the waning moments of a 4-3 Stanley Cup playoff loss Monday. Now Washington's star center is paying for it with a one-game suspension that will keep him out of Thursday's pivotal Game 4 at Verizon Center with his team down 2-1 in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Bruins.
While the play was out of character for Backstrom, he has shown flashes of that rage since returning from a concussion suffered Jan. 3. He scrapped with New York Rangers forward Ryan Callahan in the regular-season finale April 7 and has been involved in one altercation after another throughout this series. It has reached the point that Washington officials are openly accusing Boston of targeting Backstrom's head with incredulous Bruins players and coaches denying the charges.
"A little bit," Backstrom said Wednesday when asked whether he believes he has become a target. "But that's how the playoff is. I like when it's tough and stuff like that. There's nothing bad about that."
Backstrom always has played with more of an edge than he's credited for, but he has never taken to the physical play the way he has this month. Part of it, according to multiple teammates and coaches, is a natural desire to avoid another concussion. It took a miserable two months of fighting post-concussion symptoms and a trip home to Sweden before Backstrom finally felt ready to return to the ice. Washington was 18-16-6 without him in the lineup.
"When you come back from a head injury, your first thought when someone's coming at you is to protect your head, to get your stick up," said Caps forward Jay Beagle, who suffered a concussion of his own Oct. 13 and didn't return until Dec.?28. "Because a head injury is something you never want to go through again once you've had it. [Backstrom] has been playing a grittier game and kind of getting into the mix a little bit."
Backstrom admitted in the days after his return March 31 against Montreal that he was worried about taking another big hit. And while he quickly grew more confident in his play -- he scored against New York and had the overtime winner in Game 2 against Boston on Saturday -- the thought of another blow to the head has left Backstrom sensitive to on-ice threats.
"You've got to protect yourself. That's what he's been doing," teammate Jason Chimera said. "If you get a second concussion, you're out for any length of time. Who knows how long? It might end his career. So he doesn't want to get that. Guys have been taking liberties with his head, and you've got to watch for it."
But even Backstrom's teammates concede that the Peverley cross-check was an overreaction. It was the first time he has been suspended during his five-year NHL career.
"I'm not going to make excuses for him," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "But I can guarantee you Nicky's not a guy that's going to think, 'Oh I'm going to go cross-check this guy in the face.' I think it was by accident, but I wasn't in the situation. Everyone knows Nicky's not that kind of guy. He's a Lady Byng candidate. That's not his style."