- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Almost exactly two months ago, Feb. 7, the Washington Capitals looked like a team that had hit rock bottom, looked for all the world like a team without a clue and really, if anyone was being honest, like a team without a prayer.
On the road that night against their historic rival, the Caps allowed five goals in less than 13 minutes in the second period en route to a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That night, captain Alexander Ovechkin picked up a power-play goal, just his third goal of the lockout-shortened season (none at even strength). He echoed teammate Troy Brouwer's sentiments that the Caps weren’t mentally prepared to play the game.
"No emotions, nothing," Ovechkin said with a sigh.
Two months later, Ovechkin has soared to the top of the goal-scoring chart with 25, tied for the league lead with Steven Stamkos. In his last 14 games, Ovechkin has collected 16 goals and seven assists.
Center Nicklas Backstrom, a nonfactor in that ugly loss to the Penguins, has been reunited with Ovechkin and has reasserted himself as one of the game’s best playmakers. In Sunday’s come-from-behind 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Backstrom extended his point streak to six games. He has 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in his last six games and is third in the NHL in assists with 34.
And the Capitals? All they have done is go from a 2-8-1 record after that Pittsburgh outing to the top of the Southeast Division at 20-17-2. After being unable to buy a goal, they rank seventh in the league with 2.92 goals per game and are first on the power play.
During a telephone call Monday afternoon, Backstrom joked that he was thankful this interview was being carried out now and not earlier in the season.
"A month ago we were in a really tough spot," Backstrom acknowledged.
Maybe the Caps' start was inevitable, as a season shortened by the lockout with a nonexistent training camp was coupled with the arrival of a new coach in 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Adam Oates and, with him, new systems and new ideas.
Oates felt the best way to get Ovechkin, essentially in a two-year offensive slump, back to form was to move him to the right side. It took time. The critics were loud, early returns on the experiment less than stellar.
Oh yes, said Backstrom.
"We were wondering what was going on," he said. "But we stuck with it. I feel like we’re a better group right now. I think everybody in the locker room believed in what we were doing."
Certainly Oates did.
One of the game's finest-ever playmakers, Oates conceded that there was a lot of external discouragement at the team’s start.
"But I can honestly say I didn’t feel it from the players,” he told ESPN.com on Monday.
Ovechkin started getting more opportunities, as Oates predicted he would. The more opportunities he got, the less he pressed and the more success he had.
He wasn’t just getting one or two chances a night and feeling he had to capitalize every time he got the puck. He was getting five or six, Oates said.
And as is so often the case with scorers, the confidence grew exponentially and the result was more and more goals.
Longtime NHL player Bill Lindsay, now an analyst for the Florida Panthers, watched Ovechkin score three times against the Panthers on Saturday and add an assist. To him, the difference from the last couple of years and even earlier this season was stark.
"He had that energy from start to finish," Lindsay said, "that domination."
The last couple of years, "He didn’t really seem to have that intensity, that battle level," Lindsay said.
Last week, though, Ovechkin was the guy Lindsay had looked forward to seeing at the rink, the player who brought fans to their feet with his speed, physicality and wicked shot.
If it all starts with Ovechkin, it is likewise fair to say nothing gets finished in Washington without Backstrom.
Ovechkin is a lightning rod for a whole range of emotions -- unbridled praise when the team is going well, criticism when it is struggling. It has always been so. Backstrom exists somewhere in the shadows, never quite receiving the credit he deserves when things are cooking while likely escaping the full brunt of criticism due when the team has been bad.
"Ovie is the superstar, but Nicky is the man," Oates said. "He drives our bus every night."
There are interesting parallels between Oates, who played in the shadow of a big-time personality and big-time goal-scorer by the name of Brett Hull, and the Backstrom/Ovechkin tandem. But Backstrom knows how much his coach relies on him, so a kind of equilibrium has been established.
"It’s been a weird season for me," Backstrom said. "It was tough for the whole team in the beginning and also for me."
But if a scorer can find that groove, find the back of the net more often and more easily, the same dynamic exists for a player like Backstrom, whose job is to create time and space for players like Ovechkin, to send pucks through crowds to teammates' sticks.
The Capitals visit the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday with a two-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast and a game in hand. And if anyone thought -- as many did over the previous few weeks -- that drawing the Southeast winner in the first round of the playoffs was tantamount to a free pass to the second round, the Caps’ play of late has quieted that kind of talk.
Indeed, the current Caps squad reminds Lindsay of the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2011 and could hurt you from anywhere in the lineup.
"They made some noise last year, and I don’t think they’re close to the team they’re becoming this year," Lindsay said of the Caps, who knocked off the second-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round before falling to the New York Rangers in seven games in the second round. "I wouldn’t want to play them."
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance