Why Nicklas Backstrom Is the Capitals' Key to Upsetting the NHL Champ Bruins

Marc RubinContributor IIIApril 10, 2012

Nicklas Backstrom's return to action from an early January concussion provides the Washington Capitals a spark of hope against the defending NHL Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

It was certainly a tumultuous season for the Caps, as they fired coach Bruce Boudreau on November 28th and replaced him with Dale Hunter. It was a move forced by star Alex Ovechkin's reluctance to continue playing for Boudreau, evidenced by a lacklustre "minus-four" night Ovechkin posted November 26th in a 5-1 loss at Buffalo, which was exactly a week after his  embarrassing "minus-three" night in a 7-1 loss at Toronto.

Despite the injury and the chaos, Backstrom was productive in his 42 games. His 44 points equate to 1.05 points per game, far exceeding other Caps centers:

Marcus Johansson         0.57 points/game

Brooks Laich                  0.50 points/game

Mathieu Perreault          0.47 points/game

Jeff Halpern                   0.23 points/game

Matt Hendricks              0.12 points/game

Washington was 24-16-2 (a 59.5 win percentage) in games Nicklas played versus a pedestrian 18-16-6 (52.5 win percentage) when he was out of the lineup.

In 2010-11, the Caps finished sixth in faceoff winning percentage; they fell to 17th this season largely because of Nicklas' 40-game absence. Fortunately he is back, because his 51.1 faceoff winning percentage far surpasses Laich's 47.6 percent and Johansson's 43.2 percent. This is especially critical because the Bruins were the No. 1 team in the NHL with a 54.5 faceoff winning percentage.

In 2010-11, the Caps finished second in penalty killing, successfully defending against 85.6 percent of opportunities while Nicklas averaged 1.5 minutes of short-handed ice time per game, primarily taking faceoffs deep in his own end. They dropped markedly to 21st this past season, killing only 81.6 percent of opponent power-play opportunities. Again, I attribute this to his 40-game absence.

Nicklas' scoring prowess is significant because the Caps are confronting goalie Tim Thomas, who followed up his incredible 2010-11 regular season and playoffs with a stellar 2011-12 season.

How stellar? Well, the Bruins won 100 percent of the games they were leading after two periods, 92 percent of the games they were leading after one period and 86.1 percent of the games when they scored the first goal. That 86.1 percent differs markedly from the 39.1 winning percentage the Bruins have when they trail 1-0. It is imperative that the Capitals score early.

The most fascinating strategic issue to watch for is whether Coach Hunter skates Backstrom and Ovechkin together on the same line or splits them up. There is a logic to splitting them up because that prevents Boston from defending them with lockdown defensive pair Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.

However, the "split them up" strategy failed miserably in the sweep they suffered against Tampa Bay in last year's playoffs. I look to the 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 playoffs when they were most frequently paired together and Nicklas produced 30 points in 28 playoff games and Ovechkin scored 40.

I am hoping Backstrom and Ovechkin skate together and give us hockey fans "the best playing against the best" competition. The Caps can perhaps draw some confidence from the fact they beat the Bruins three of their four contests in the regular season, all played with Backstrom missing. Yet the games were odd in that the winning team had far fewer shots than the losing team in each game.

In Boston's sole win on February 5th, it was a typical Tim Thomas game, with his 35 saves sparking a 4-1 victory. In their first game of the season on January 24th, backup Boston goalie Tuukka Rask had a bad night in a 5-3 Bruins loss despite allowing the Caps a mere 22 shots on goal. The Caps' Tomas Vokoun, who enjoyed a fine season, was key to the Caps' 4-3 March 10th win over Boston.

I look for an exciting series, for this is a Washington team that has carried the burden of "great expectations" for several years, and yet this season they flew under the radar and only made the playoffs after a late charge. This is an opportunity for redemption of sorts and I look for Backstrom and Ovechkin to rise to the occasion and provide us with some wonderful highlights.


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