Nicklas Backstrom admits it’s nice to finally be an All-Star

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Nicklas Backstrom is the point-a-game playmaker who toils in the large shadow of Washington Capitals teammate Alex Ovechkin, goal-scoring rock star and a constant headliner on the NHL’s marquee.

So, it’s not surprising the unassuming Backstrom has never really gotten more attention for his accomplishments.

“Nicky is the quietest superstar in the league,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. “Great players make other people look better, and I think Nicky is the king of that.”

Backstrom flies under the radar like no other current player with 600 career points. Only six active players have more points a game since he entered the league and they’re the best of the best: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Kane.

Yet somehow this weekend will be Backstrom’s first All-Star appearance.

“Is this his first All-Star Game?” incredulous former linemate Mike Knuble. “It is, really? Holy cow. That’s crazy.”

Believe it. Backstrom has never wanted the attention and wanted to make it clear that he didn’t ask his coach, Barry Trotz, to go on an All-Star campaign for him.

Perhaps it’s the Swede in him that makes him want to go about his business without the fanfare or the thirst for attention. Maybe it’s just the 28-year-old’s humility, but he’s honored his coach and teammates have taken a stand to bring him the deserved recognition.

“It’s nice to kind of get appreciated, maybe?” Backstrom said. “But at the same time, it’s not that I haven’t gotten any recognition at all. I’m happy with the way it was or is.”

The way it is, Backstrom dazzles teammates every day in practice. When stay-at-home defenseman Karl Alzner is afraid to mess up a drill, he sees Backstrom fire a backhanded saucer pass 50 feet across the ice. When Laich works on the penalty kill he sees how Backstrom moves opponents around to exactly where he wants them.

Opponents don’t get too close to Backstrom because they know he’s can make them look bad.

“He knows how far everybody’s going to come out to challenge him,” Knuble said. “He’ll go right up to the edge like a dog on an invisible fence. He knows where that line is where they won’t cross.”

Around the league Backstrom has a reputation as a very good player. But the true appreciation of Backstrom comes from seeing him up-close.

“I watched him before, too, and I knew he was great,” said Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin, who played with Backstrom at the Sochi Olympics. “But I didn’t think he was (that good). He was so much fun to play with on the same line – great passer, great vision. Just the way he skates and moves, he’s easy to play with.

“He’s up there in the league for sure among centermen.”

Likewise, Trotz gained a better appreciation of Backstrom’s brilliance when he witnessed it from behind the bench every game. Now it bothers him that Backstrom is constantly overlooked, whether it be as an All-Star, a candidate for the Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward, or simply as an elite talent.

“When you have a player of his caliber, to not be recognized I think it is a little bit of a travesty in some ways that he hasn’t got the attention that he deserves,” Trotz said. “People are missing that moment where they recognize a great player playing on a nightly basis and not really pay attention to it. I think Nick’s OK with it, but I wasn’t.”

Neither are the Capitals.

Knuble likened Backstrom to a less physical Peter Forsberg, a Hockey Hall of Famer. Backstrom’s career might be one better understood when he hangs up his skates and his stats speak for themselves.

“You’re going to look back at his whole career and see how many points he gets, and it might be the quietest Hall of Fame number of points that you might see in a long time,” Trotz said.

Backstrom is only nine years into his career, but talk of the Hall of Fame is not far-fetched considering Ovechkin’s the fifth-fastest player to 500 goals and that he did it alongside Backstrom.

Ovechkin said Backstrom makes him better every day. Their chemistry has led the Capitals to seven playoff appearances with an eighth looming, and the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo could go down as one of the best in hockey history.

“It’s just a perfect match,” Laich said. “You’ve got an all-time shooter with an all-time passer.”

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SWhyno .

Flyers keep finding ways to win

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A wave of injuries may eventually capsize the Philadelphia Flyers, but not yet.

With both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth sidelined – not to mention bad news for power forward Wayne Simmonds – the Flyers are likely to be tested down the stretch. It’s key, then, to grind out wins while they can, and they managed a tough one tonight.

In this specific case, it came down to getting goals from a sniper who’s become far more of a playmaker this season. Jakub Voracek sent the game into overtime and then scored the game-winner in a 3-2 OT win for the Flyers against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday. Those two tallies pushed him to 13 on the season, a rare bit of puck luck this season for a player who brought a 6.4 shooting percentage into tonight’s action.

Voracek also grabbed an assist, beefing up his league-leading total to 55. The Czech winger’s dynamic performance helped the Flyers win their third game in a row, extending a point streak that covers most of their February games (7-0-2 in their last nine contests).

Taylor Hall‘s fantastic goal was all the Devils could muster in their game tonight, falling in regulation to the Columbus Blue Jackets. With those decisions in mind, Philly is firmly planted at third in the Metropolitan Division with 72 standings points. They’re even in the running for a round of home-ice advantage, if they can catch the just-as-hot Pittsburgh Penguins.

Heck, they even gained on the Metro’s top team, as the Capitals fell to the Lightning 4-2 tonight:

1. Capitals: 75 points in 60 games played (31 ROW)
2. Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
3. Flyers: 72 points in 60 GP (30 ROW)
4. Devils: 70 points in 60 GP (27 ROW)
5. Blue Jackets: 65 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
6. Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
7. Islanders: 64 points in 61 GP (26 ROW)
8. Rangers: 59 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)

If nothing else, the Flyers are separating from the wild-card pack, as they have a nice edge over the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, and Islanders.

Such strong play could empower GM Ron Hextall to add some firepower. Such moves could help ease the loss of Simmonds, and ideally give Philly solid depth when everyone is closer to full strength.

They’ve already taken that step by adding goalie insurance in Petr Mrazek, who should be as hungry as the team he’s joined. It’s truly remarkable how far this team has come since a 10-game losing streak that ended on Dec. 2. No doubt about it, players like Voracek have played a big role in this strong work:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Video: Taylor Hall’s splendid coast-to-coast goal

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You’re not supposed to be able to do this. Not against NHL defensemen, and certainly not against a goalie like Sergei Bobrovsky.

New Jersey Devils star Taylor Hall continues to impose his will with dynamic play, beefing up his Hart Trophy resume as he keeps adding games to his point streak. On Tuesday, he extended it to a whopping 19 games.

Hall did it in style, grabbing the puck near his own red line, then traveling the length of the ice before beating “Bob” on his short side:

That’s the 25th goal of 2017-18 for Hall, who now has 63 points (possibly and counting) in 55 regular-season games.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

U.S. rides Zapolski, college kids to Olympic quarterfinals

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Tony Granato knew going into the Olympics that Ryan Zapolski would be his goaltender and that the college kids on the Team USA roster would be counted on to supply offense.

It’s worked just like Granato and the late general manager Jim Johannson had hoped, and just in time: Zapolski stopped 21 shots in his best game of the tournament and NCAA players Ryan Donato and Troy Terry dominated offensively in a 5-1 win against Slovakia that put the United States into Wednesday’s quarterfinals against the Czech Republic (Tues., 10:10 p.m. ET, CNBC).

”Jimmy, like we said since Day One, this is his plan,” Granato said Tuesday’s win. ”It’s been a really nice mix.”

Zapolski and Donato both took hits to the head against Slovakia, and both said they were fine afterward.

It looked worrisome at the time.

In a frightening play, Ladislav Nagy crashed into Zapolski’s head and the goaltender was down on the ice for several minutes. Needing to be on top of his game in the Americans’ first elimination game, Zapolski was, even after jamming his neck.

”My hands and feet went numb a little bit, so it just kind of pinched my nerve, I guess,” Zapolski said. ”I think I just needed time for the feeling to come back. It took a little bit. It was a little bit of a scary thing for me kind of losing feeling in your body for a little bit, but it went away pretty quickly.”

Donato took a shoulder to the jaw from 6-foot-4 Slovakia defenseman Michal Cajovsky, who was ejected, and didn’t miss a shift despite a bloody nose he thought might be broken. On the next play, he set the screen on James Wisniewski’s 5-on-3 power-play goal in a game that helped the U.S. get its offensive groove back.

”He’s a really tough kid, and you see how much just of a natural goal-scorer he is,” Terry said of Donato. ”He’s fun to play with, and if I get the puck to him I know it’s got a pretty good chance of going in.”

Donato and Terry have had fun and made some magic playing on a line with former NHL forward Mark Arcobello, who Granato joked was the happiest person at the Olympics because of his skilled linemates. Arcobello, who scored his first Olympic goal against Slovakia, knew at the first practice how good Donato and Terry would be.

”You could just see the talent they’ve got,” Arcobello said. ”They look like pros. They don’t look like college players. They’re poised and they do the right things. They’re smart players. So I knew right away they were going to be pretty good.”

Johannson and Granato wanted to bring three to seven college players and hoped they’d be this good. But their first conversation about a player was about Zapolski, a 31-year-old journeyman with no North American professional experience above the ECHL.

Zapolski is among the best goaltenders in the Kontinental Hockey League but conceded ”maybe things weren’t going the way I had hoped the first few games” when he allowed a few soft goals. There were none of those against Slovakia.

”In a tournament like this, you only win if you have a good goalie,” Wisniewski said. ”You’re going to have to have a good power play and a good penalty kill, but your best penalty killer is going to be your goalie. With his numbers he’s had in the KHL, he’s come in ready to play every game, which has been huge for us.”

It’s huge for the U.S. to get its power play and offense going. And to no one’s surprise, Harvard’s Donato, University of Denver’s Terry and Boston University’s Jordan Greenway are at the forefront.

”You see it more and more in the NHL with these young kids coming in and making a huge impact,” Wisniewski said. ”They come in guns a blazing, they get every opportunity and they want you to make plays. The game has changed and you can see with the guys on our team.”

The U.S. came into the game scoring only four goals in three games. Scoring five against the team Granato called perhaps the best defensive team in the tournament has the Americans feeling good going into the quarterfinals.

”I think people saw tonight we have a very fast team and a team that can play good hockey,” Terry said. ”So we have a lot of belief in our team and we’re excited to keep going.”

Despite a 4-0 loss to the Russians to wrap up group play, Granato and his players believe they’ve gotten better each game and see a benefit in playing the extra qualification-round game to keep improving. The Czech Republic is up next for the U.S.

”There’s some different weapons that we’ll have to be aware of,” Granato said. ”I think what we learned from our team is it doesn’t matter what the other team does. We have to attack, we have to get in on the forecheck, we have to use our offensive players that we do have, the skillset that we do have.”

Elsewhere in the qualification round:

– Norway eliminated Slovenia 2-1 in overtime for its first Olympic win since 1994. Norway will face the Russians on Wednesday in its first Olympic quarterfinal appearance, while Slovenia played without Ziga Jeglic, who was suspended for doping.

– Finland eliminated South Korea with a 5-2 win, advancing to play Canada on Wednesday night.

– Germany eliminated Switzerland 2-1 in overtime, advancing to play top-seeded Sweden on Wednesday night.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org

Puck, player tracking being tested at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Finland players looked at the numbers and laughed.

They couldn’t believe captain Lasse Kukkonen only had five sprints in a game and Petri Kontiola had a whopping 46.

Even better: They don’t even know what qualifies as a sprint.

“We were looking at the stats and average speeds and making fun of some guys,” forward Oskar Osala said. “How can you have 46 sprints in a game? It sounds like a ridiculous amount of sprints.”

At these Olympics, data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance traveled, shift lengths and ice time is available to teams in what could be the next step for puck and player tracking across hockey, including the NHL. Referees even have whistles digitally connected to the clock so it stops immediately without the need for a timekeeper’s quick reaction that will always be a step slow.

Yeah, this feels like hockey’s future. The NHL has worked with technology companies and invested significant money to develop a system it can use. The Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments are a valuable testing field that could speed up the process of getting it ready for use like it is in the NBA, Major League Baseball, Formula One and other sports.

“We’re still searching for the right thing, but technology is developing so fast,” International Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Horst Lichtner said. “We are still all looking for the right solution. Maybe it’s two years. It’ll be fast.”

Lichtner and Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, which is doing the tracking in hockey and ski jumping thanks to a deal with the International Olympic Committee, said their organizations have been in contact with the NHL about the technology.

The system includes microchips in the back of jerseys that can be tracked and cameras high above the ice at the Gangneung and Kwandong hockey arenas track the movement of the puck.

It’s not quite Fox’s famous “glow puck” from the 1990s, but it’s similar to the testing the NHL did at 2015 All-Star weekend and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Omega gave the same combination of technology a run-through at the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics in Norway, and it was successful enough to try it with pros.

At the Olympics, a player’s speed is sometimes flashed up on arena video boards and all the data is sent to teams. Unlike the NHL, iPads and other electronic devices aren’t allowed on benches in international play, but if and when they are, the data could be available in real time for coaches and players to evaluate.

“We’re able to measure the data, process it and distribute in less than 100 milliseconds,” Zobrist said. “It might be a great tool for them to help their coaching.”

Player performance tracking is a touchy subject off the ice. Players have expressed concern that data on speed, distance traveled, shot velocity and other things could be used against them in coaching decisions and contract negotiations.

“It’s just all cons,” said former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski, who’s playing for the United States. “There’s nothing pros for a player for that at all. It’s not like you’re going to make more money, get a longer-term deal because you travel more distance or you don’t travel. All this is going to do is hurt you. Being a (NHL Players’ Association) rep for eight, nine years, I really have a hard time believing that the PA’s going to even let that go through. It’s all negative.”

Osala enjoys real-time data he gets as a golf fan and considers it a useful tool for athletes.

“I kind of understand how the pros approach their game and I think it’s pretty cool how you can develop your game after you made a deep analysis of your performance in a long span,” said Osala, who played three NHL games with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. “For me as a fan, it makes the game so much more interesting. Absolutely as a fan I would love to have the data in hockey.”

It would be fascinating to see how fast Connor McDavid skates, how quickly Vladimir Tarasenko releases the puck or how hard Zdeno Chara shoots from the point on the power play. But there are questions about how practical that information is. Lichtner called Formula One’s program the “ultimate data experience” because fans know everything, including the G-force on a driver, but said he doesn’t think that’s important in hockey.

“I don’t need to know the G-force of the contact between (Alex Ovechkin) and the other guy if he’s strong, but maybe some people would like it,” Lichtner said. “I can see a coach having a hundred pages more of information. He might love it, but what is the benefit for the fan?

“I’m asking my people always, ‘Why do we do it and what’s in it for promoting hockey better?’ Make it more complicated? It’s already fast and complicated enough. Can you explain the game better? Yes? Then we have a big benefit.”

During the U.S. game against Slovenia, Brian O’Neill’s maximum speed was posted on a scoreboard, visual evidence that this is a team that can fly. As much as Wisniewski doesn’t see any pluses, teammate Bobby Sanguinetti wondered if it the data can help players understand themselves better.

“It might even help with rest for us,” Sanguinetti said. “If you see a guy’s logging a lot of minutes and he’s traveling a lot of distance, I guess, from the chip, maybe that has some impact.”

Finland players joked around about Kukkonen’s five sprints, but Osala said he felt the veteran defenseman was one of the best on the ice.

Therein lies a potential problem.

“I think you need to have somebody looking at the data and somebody looking at the actual game,” Osala said. “You can’t just look at the numbers. There has to be a balance between them.”

That’s the common refrain among players and coaches about advanced stats right now, including Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shot attempts to convey some measure of possession. Once player and puck tracking is perfected and implemented, there could be specific stats on how much time the play was in each zone, similar to time of possession in football.

It seems like just a matter of time until the NHL will track and disperse that information, and Lichtner said the NHL and IIHF are on good terms and will share ideas. He said he doesn’t believe this system, which the IIHF only found out about three weeks before the Olympics and worked with Omega and jersey-maker Nike to implement, is the one that will ultimately be in place.

“The future is a mix of chip data and cameras,” Lichtner said. “But we have to try it.”

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.