Alex Ovechkin is scoring goals at record-setting levels and is arguably the NHL’s MVP at the quarter mark of the season with 20 goals in his first 22 games. For those counting, he’s on an incredible 73-goal pace.
But there is someone else at least partially responsible for Ovechkin’s prolific start, the proverbial wind beneath his wings.
His name is Nicklas Backstrom.
You might have heard of the guy, a quiet Swede who on Saturday celebrated his 26th birthday.
Through 24 games, Backstrom has 24 points. Eleven of his team-high 19 assists have come on goals scored by Ovechkin.
This, of course, is nothing new for Backstrom. Since he arrived in Washington 2007 Backstrom has averaged a little more than a point a game with the Capitals, piling up 439 points in 437 games.
In fact, since he entered the NHL, only 12 players have recorded more points than Backstrom’s 439.
“I think he’s getting better every day,” said Marcus Johansson, who also has assisted on 11 of Ovechkin’s goals this season and has 18 points. “I don’t think there is any better player who can slow down the game and find plays. I don’t think there is any better passer in the world right now. It’s unbelievable to watch and even better to play with.”
Last week, Backstrom’s touch pass led to one of Ovechkin’s typical goals, a hard blast from the top of the right circle that beat St. Louis goalie Jaroslav Halak.
As he returned to the bench, while Ovechkin was getting congratulations from his teammates, Backstrom caught the eye of Capitals head coach.
The two nodded and smiled. Both knew it was the kind of pass Oates made during his Hall of Fame career.
“He is the silent guy, no question, but I'm sure he appreciates the fact that we do appreciate that,” Oates said. “He has to be reminded by myself and the staff every once in a while that that was a special pass. When he came off I gave him the eyeball. Ovi scored, but I saw [the pass.].”
When it comes to attention, Ovechkin basks in it while Backstrom shies away from it. It’s the way it’s always been and he hopes it’s the way it will always be.
“I'm going to be honest with you, I'm not going to look for attention," Backstrom said. “That's not who I am. If you ask me a question I’ll answer any question you want, but I like it back here [in the shadows]. I don’t mind to be in the background. I don't need [attention]. I'm happy with the way it is. People can write about me, but I’m not going to search for it.”
When Oates was hired by the Capitals he made it very clear he wanted his best players, most of whom are in the prime of their careers, to get better. To that end, he moved Ovechkin to the right side and the 28-year-old Russian has flourished.
With Backstrom, Oates worked on his defensive positioning in an effort to make his top line less of a liability when they do not posses the puck.
“He’s a smart coach with small details and he told me that sometimes you have to be more aggressive in the defensive zone than in the offensive zone,” Backstrom said. “He’s been teaching me a lot about that.”
On Friday night against the Canadiens, Backstrom lost a faceoff to David Desharnais, then allowed him to beat him to the net for a goal. It was an uncharacteristic mistake by Backstrom, but Oates did is best to protect him after the game, saying that all of his veterans need to play better.
“He’s a great hockey player in this league and just like everybody he’s got room for improvement.” Oates said. “He and I talk about little things that I think he can do a little differently and I see him doing that on a nightly basis.”
Johansson said that as quiet as Backstrom appears on the outside, there is a fire that burns within him that comes out more often than fans think.
“He does everything on the ice,” Johansson said. “Three on five or five on three. The last minute of a game. If we’re leading; if we’re down. He’s always doing the right thing.”
And occasionally, Backstrom will unleash his own kind of fury in the locker room.
“Sometimes he does that, too,” Johansson said. “He’s a good leader in every way.”