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

5 Comments

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 .

Pens coach praises Murray: ‘He doesn’t get rattled’

3 Comments

Hot take: the Pittsburgh Penguins probably won’t deal with a goalie controversy going into Game 7.

(Ugh, that’s a failed hot take … you can’t use “probably” in those things, right?)

Matt Murray was fantastic at times during Game 6, much like his counterpart in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s net in a 5-2 win. Granted, there were some tense moments during the Bolts’ late-game push:

Much has been made about experience, especially from those calling for Marc-Andre Fleury earlier in this series. It’s telling that the praise Murray draws sure sounds like what you’d expect from a “veteran.”

“He has a calming influence,” Sullivan said. “He doesn’t get rattled. If he lets a goal in, he just continues to compete. That’s usually an attribute that usually takes years to acquire that, and to have it at such a young age is impressive.”

Thanks in part to Murray’s efforts in Game 6, he’ll get a chance to prove his resolve in something new: a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final.

Once again, his teammates seem pretty confident in this elimination situation.

Lightning lament Game 6 effort, Cooper doesn’t blame disallowed goal

8 Comments

The Tampa Bay Lightning seemed to sleepwalk through the first two periods of Game 6, and waking up in the final frame wasn’t enough to edge the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On the bright side, at least the Lightning aren’t in denial about that weak first 40 minutes.

It seemed like everyone on the team more or less admitted as much in unison.

Brian Boyle added that he felt like the Lightning tiptoed around this game. Jon Cooper often provides great quips, yet he was pretty matter-of-fact in this case.

Many will linger on this disallowed goal for Jonathan Drouin, which would have provided a 1-0 lead for Tampa Bay in the first period.

Let’s face it; that moment came pretty early in the game. To Tampa Bay’s credit, they’re not pinning the loss on that setback.

Now they must set their sights on competing throughout Game 7 … and maybe earning some bounces of their own in the process.

Read more about Game 6 here.

Penguins force Game 7 after holding off Lightning rally

23 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins played with fire late in Game 6, but they also showed plenty of fire in beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2.

With that, this thrilling Eastern Conference Final will go the distance with Game 7 on Thursday.

There are at least a few “What if?” scenarios to consider, especially for the Lightning.

What if that offside goal counted?

Jonathan Drouin played some fantastic hockey on Tuesday, yet his most memorable moment came via something that ultimately “didn’t happen.” An offside call on a goal review kept a 1-0 lead from happening for Tampa Bay:

Instead, the Penguins poured it on during the first period and eventually went up 1-0. They then carried that momentum over through the second period, adding two more goals to go up 3-0 heading into the final frame.

What if Tampa Bay played more like they did in the third period?

The difference between the level of play in the first 40 minutes and the final frame were night-and-day.

Now, you can make a chicken-and-the-egg argument here. Did the Penguins take their feet off the gas with that lead? Maybe Jon Cooper finally unleashed the hounds when the Lightning were facing a big deficit?

Maybe it’s a combination of those factors; either way, the Bolts couldn’t come all the way back even after making it interesting. At one point the game was 3-2 before a Bryan Rust breakaway goal and an empty-netter put things out of reach.

Both Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy faced plenty of tough chances and came through more often than not. We’ll see if there are any goal controversy rumblings, but each netminder came through at times tonight.

***

Now the series shifts back to Pittsburgh for Game 7 with a Stanley Cup Final on the line. Excited and/or nervous yet?

More: Great goals by Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel.

Sidney Crosby scores a superstar goal

13 Comments

With the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season on the line in Game 6, plenty of eyes are on big guns Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel.

Those marquee names are really coming through so far as they’ve now built a 3-0 lead through two periods against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

You likely already saw Kessel’s display of high-end hand-eye coordination (if not, check it here). Kris Letang scored his first goal of the series to make it 2-0 on a very tricky, well-placed shot.

The highlight really might be Crosby’s tally, though. He left multiple Lightning players baffled and beat a very-much-game Andrei Vasilevskiy to beef that lead up 3-0.