With the Washington Capitals heading off to western Canada for a three-game road swing through Alberta and British Columbia, it has potential to be one full of milestones for both Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The two first-round picks from 2004 and 2006 have been a staple of the Capitals’ attack since Backstrom arrived in North America in 2007, and 15 years into their pairing, they each approach a major marker starting Tuesday night against the Calgary Flames.
Barring injury, the two will appear in their 1,000th game together, and Backstrom is just three points shy of 1,000 for his career, while Ovechkin now has 764 career goals, just two shy of Jaromir Jagr for third-place all-time in NHL history. All this sets up what could be a momentous road trip for Washington, or even one really memorable night in Calgary.
Up-and-Down Season for Capitals’ Stars
Certainly this season hasn’t been like the others with Washington’s two top stars. While Ovechkin scored 24 goals before New Year’s Day, he has just 10 since the calendar flipped to 2022, and also was forced to miss the All-Star Game in Las Vegas due to a positive COVID-19 test. His strong start carried the Capitals to the forefront of the Metropolitan Division race, but as he slowed down, so did the team, which is now seemingly heading for a wild card spot barring a major run in the season’s final two months.
Backstrom’s year didn’t start until December due to an injury, and then interrupted by a positive COVID-19 result himself, and as a result he has appeared in just 24 games so far this season, with four goals and 13 assists. While normally Backstrom is one of the primary setup men for Ovechkin’s goals, only five of Ovechkin’s goals this season came with a Backstrom assist — and just one since Jan. 20. Likewise, on Backstrom’s four tallies this season, just one came with an assist to Ovechkin.
One of the keys for Washington to try and make itself a legitimate playoff threat is to have the pairing click again, especially on the power play. In recent games, the two have appeared more cohesive, pairing up on an Ovechkin extra-strength goal in the team’s win over the Seattle Kraken Saturday.
“It is about having the pieces back and having a rhythm,” coach Peter Laviolette told the Washington Post of the resurgence of the Capitals’ extra-man advantage (“The Capitals’ power play has turned it around. Can that continue?,” Washington Post, 3/7/22). “There is definitely things we could have done better in a stretch when it’s not going, and now it seems like it is a little more on point.”
Backstrom seems to be coming back to form, with three points in Washington’s last four games following a stretch with just a goal in six games. Ovechkin, traditionally a streaky scorer in his career, also seems to be heating up, with two goals and three assists in his last three games.
Typical of Backstrom’s career, his nearing 1,000 NHL points is certainly not a focus on the team with the stretch drive arriving. But it is significant, as while several players have reached that milestone in a Capitals uniform, he would be just the second to collect 1,000 all with Washington, with Ovechkin being the other.
The only other Capital to even approach 1,000 points in a Washington uniform was Peter Bondra, who collected 825 before being sent to the Ottawa Senators in the fire sale in 2004 that eventually brought Ovechkin to the franchise.
Backstrom has traditionally operated in Ovechkin’s shadow, a solid if unspectacular center for the Russian star, and certainly if the duo is healthy and productive this spring, it makes the Capitals a much more dangerous team to face come the playoffs if the two top stars are productive.
In a season that Ovechkin already passed Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull in career goals, passing Jagr would put him within reach of Gordie Howe next season, as he currently is 37 behind the former all-time NHL goal leader. With his latest streak, and with his ability to score in bunches, it certainly seems like by the time the Capitals return home on March 15, he could be ahead of the former Capital winger and in third place on the list.
It certainly hasn’t been a smooth month for the Russian with the attention on his homeland’s invasion of Ukraine, but it appears being on the ice has been a welcome distraction for Washington’s captain, as he has played well in front of the home fans. Of course, these next few games will be away from the fans who chanted his name during the homestand, and the Flames likely will play the Ukrainian anthem before Tuesday’s game, as they did Monday night when the Edmonton Oilers came calling.
But both could make history on the same night, which would be quite a combination, as the two have been.
“They’re two of the top players in the game,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette told NBC Sports Washington. “They have been for a long time. And so, one of them has a skill set to make plays that is one of the best in the league and the other one has the ability to deliver the puck to the net. He’s arguably the best in the league. It’s a good combination and a good tandem.”
As Washington sets out on what could be a memorable road trip, with the fireworks the team’s two stars can put together, it’s also quite possible that the two can hit three milestones in one single game. It should be a game worth watching if the two can put points up early.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.