The playoff failures of the Washington Capitals rarely come with silver linings anymore, but there was one positive to come out of this year’s postseason as a vocal leader emerged from the within the locker room.
No, it wasn’t the captain, Alex Ovechkin, who seems to have more of a “lead by example” type of personality. Instead, it was the soft-spoken, oft overlooked and overshadowed Nicklas Backstrom who took up the mantle.
“It's not very often, but when something needs to be said, Nick does a good job standing up and saying it and people listen,” T.J. Oshie said.
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Plenty needed be said in Washington’s second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the Caps lost both Games 1 and 2 at home to start the series, it was Backstrom who spoke up in a team meeting following Game 2. When the Caps fell into a 3-1 series hole, it was Backstroim who backed up his words and carried the team to a Game 7.
“We laid an egg in Game 4, I mean absolutely laid an egg when we should have been just chomping at the bit to come back here 2-2,” Matt Niskanen said. “And since then, Games 5 and 6, [Backstrom was the] most dominant player in the series. Just stepped up his game, dominated. I thought he showed a ton of character there. … That guy laid it on the line and that's what you need to see from your top players and he was fantastic.”
Backstrom finished the series with seven points in seven games, including three in Games 5 and 6 to help Washington force a Game 7.
At 29 years old and after 10 seasons with the team, Backstrom’s experience is obviously respected amongst his teammates, but, given his normally reserved temperament, it is his words that really carry weight.
“He's a fairly quiet guy,” Oshie said. “He's reserved, he's extremely poised with his emotions and with his hockey game, how he carries himself on the ice. When things need to be said and Nick speaks and he stands up and he says something, you listen because he cares, he thinks about what he says and he says the right things and a lot of the right moments.”
“It's uncomfortable for him to say things that are uncomfortable, but sometimes that's what you need to do, you need to step out of your skin I think,” Niskanen said. “He had some words for us as a group and then he backed it up and I have a ton of respect for him the way he handled himself in this series.”
Over the years Backstrom has become more comfortable with his role on the team and has grown into a leader. Now, after multiple years of postseason disappointment, he is done worrying about speaking up.
“At this point, I don't really care anymore,” he said. “I'm just going to be honest, what I think. Maybe I've been talking a little bit more than previous years. I'm an honest guy I think and I'm just going to say whatever I feel like needs to be said.”
His teammates know that it’s coming from a good place and they respect him all the more for it, especially when he is able to back up his words on the ice. He did it in the playoffs and now he’s doing it for Sweden.
Since joining the national team in the IIHF World Championship, Backstrom has two goals and four assists in four games and will now try to lead Sweden to its first World Championship since 2013. They face Canada in the finals on Sunday.
It’s just the kind of performance his teammates have come to expect.
“Man does he care,” Niskanen said. “He's a guy that just, he wants so bad to have more success and he cares about the right things. I have the most respect for Backy and the way he responded this year. When times got uncomfortable and tough, he got better.”
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