Good or bad, it’s hard not to notice Alex Ovechkin.
Whether he’s blowing past a defenseman with a power move or turning the puck over for a breakaway the other way, Ovechkin has always solicited strong opinions.
One week critics are saying he’ll never be a dominant player again; the next he’s earning NHL Player of the Week honors.
And then there are his silent partners, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson.
While Ovechkin has been racking up the points, and the attention, with 16 goals and seven assists in his past 14 games, Backstrom and Johansson have been quietly fueling the engine.
During that same stretch Backstrom has three goals, 16 assists and is a plus-5, while Johansson has four goals, 11 assists and is a plus-8.
“I would say the way we’ve gone the last month and a half, Nicky has been a huge, huge part of it,” said Capitals coach Adam Oates, who gave his players the day off today before they board a flight for Montreal for Tuesday night’s game against the Canadiens.
“I think his game has elevated. I think having Marcus back playing really good hockey and Alex having success on the power play, I just think confidence is an amazing thing.
“[Backstrom] doesn’t get the accolades. He’s more under the radar, which I think he likes. Ovi’s the guy that jumps into the glass and that’s the way it works and [Backstrom] is quite comfortable with it. But obviously he’s our man, too.”
It is worth noting that both Backstrom and Johansson have endured lengthy stays on the injured list with concussions over the past two seasons. Backstrom missed 43 games last season after taking an elbow to the chin from Canadiens forward Rene Bourque.
Johansson was shaken up by a training camp collision with Alex Ovechkin in January, but tried playing through the pain and managed just one goal and a minus-7 through the first nine games of the season. Johansson sat out 14 straight games and since returning to the lineup he has four goals, 12 assists and is a plus-7 in 16 games.
“Since he came back, he’s way better,” Oates said. “I talked to him a couple days ago and told him he looks like a different person to me. I’m really glad he’s playing well.”
Oates has used both Backstrom and Johansson on the first power-play unit, positioning Backstrom on the right halfwall and Johansson at the right side of the net along the goal line. From both areas of the ice the silent Swedes can pull the trigger on passes to Troy Brouwer in the slot or Ovechkin lurking around the left circle.
“[Johansson] does a great job of figuring out Ovi and Backy and where to be and that’s not an easy job because Alex is the stealth, looking to hide,” Oates said. “He’s not always the easiest guy to read and Marcus is doing a great job of that.”
Backstrom says the top line’s success is the result of playing within Oates’ opportunistic system.
“I think we're better with the system and that's why we're winning hockey games,” Backstrom said. “We're working harder, working together as a team and that's what you've got to do. We have to chip in for each other and that's what we’re doing.”
Backstrom says it’s a generalization to suggest the Caps are back to playing the way they did three years ago when they led the NHL with 318 goals, only to fizzle in the playoffs.
“It doesn't matter if it feels that way,” Backstrom said. “It depends how it is in the playoffs, and we weren't that successful in the playoffs in the past. But we're trying to get a playoff spot here and then we'll go from there."