Backstrom looking to shine in Sochi

Understated Capitals center could drive Sweden's upset hopes at the Olympics

Originally Published: January 16, 2014
By Katie Strang | ESPNNewYork.com

CapitalsGeoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsNicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, so successful as a tandem with the Caps, will be foes in Sochi.

When Nicklas Backstrom laces up the skates for Team Sweden in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi next month, he'll do so alongside a bevvy of the NHL's brightest stars.

Up front, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Daniel Alfredsson and Alexander Steen.

On the back end, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

And in goal, 2012 Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped Team Sweden to a gold medal in Torino in 2006.

Even though the 26-year-old Backstrom led the team in scoring in Vancouver in 2010, when Sweden placed a disappointing fifth, he won't be the headliner in '14. And that should suit him just fine.

"He isn't a person that likes the limelight," Troy Brouwer, one of Backstrom's Capitals teammates, told ESPN.com. "That's just not his personality. He likes to be in the shadows, doing his own thing."

After all, Backstrom's consistent productivity has never been a headline-grabber in Washington. That attention, of course, is usually reserved for superstar winger Alex Ovechkin, the three-time Hart Trophy winner and four-time 50-goal scorer. The usual acclaim for Ovechkin continues, with No. 8 leading the league with a whopping 35 goals, but Backstrom has quietly amassed 38 assists (fifth in the NHL) and 49 points while aiding the team's resident star.

"I've said this before," Brouwer said, "but Nicky is the guy who makes this team run."

It stands to reason that Backstrom will play a similar role for Sweden in Sochi. He will likely slot in as one of the team's top two centers, along with Henrik Sedin, and a talented group of wingers will rely on Backstrom's playmaking abilities.

"He's one of our top centers and such a smart player," said Lundqvist. "He's going to be huge on the power play. A guy like that, that can take a hit and make a play, they're so important. They let guys come to you and then make that open play and create chances for us.

"He's going to be one of our leader players."

"He's a fantastic playmaker. He has the ability to see around corners" like Peter Forsberg, Sweden's general manager, Tommy Boustedt, told ESPN.com when reached via email. "He likes to be in the heat. He's also a very nice and humble person, always in a good mood, with a smile on his face. Great team player."Chemistry is something that predicates Backstrom's understated success in Washington -- Capitals coach Adam Oates recently reunited him with Ovechkin during the team's recent skid, resorting to the bread-and-butter tandem in an effort to guide the club out of an offensive slog.

As one of 13 returnees from the 2010 Swedish squad, Backstrom should be able to forge that chemistry quickly with teammates without much effort. He has competed for Sweden internationally on seven occasions, including in 2006 when, at 18, he was one of the youngest player in an IIHF World Championship.

"Most of those guys, especially the European guys, have played with their teammates before. Canadian guys, it's different -- and for certain U.S. guys -- but Backy's played with all those guys," Oates said. "They all know him. They'll have chemistry the second they walk in. It won't take them long at all."

Oates, a Hall of Fame playmaker in his own right, said he can see Backstrom flourishing at the Olympics. Big ice versus small ice, it doesn't make a difference what surface Backstrom is playing on when it comes to his superior hockey sense. According to Oates, Backstrom's ability to execute plays with just the smallest sliver or space and time is what makes him one of the league's elite.

"That's one of his skill sets, his ability to make reads," he said.

Backstrom thinks and hopes that the bigger ice surface, on which the European players became accustomed to playing, could serve as an advantage in the tournament. As opposed to an NHL rink, the rinks in Sochi will be 15 feet wider.

"Obviously, you're going to skate more, but you're going to have more time to make plays, too," Backstrom said. "We all grew up playing on the bigger ice, so hopefully we still know how to play."

Though the travel will be taxing and the competition fierce, the Olympic break might be exactly what Backstrom needs to re-energize after what has recently been a difficult stretch for his Capitals. Washington has dropped six straight games, falling to 12th in the Eastern Conference standings and sixth in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps sit two points back from the last wild-card spot. Backstrom has only one goal in his last 12 games and has been held off the score sheet entirely seven times during that span. And though the Canadian and U.S. team selections were accompanied with far more fanfare, Sweden is poised to emerge as an upset favorite against the 2010 gold and silver-medal-winning squads.

Even Ovechkin, who will compete for host country Russia, didn't want to entertain yet the possibility of facing his teammate in international play. "Not yet," he said. "I haven't thought it about yet."

Ovechkin will be without his trusted linemate for a few weeks, and it will surely serve as a reminder of just how valuable Backstrom is to any team down the middle. Backstrom hopes he can prove that point for Sweden and help his squad play spoiler in Sochi.

"From what I heard, the favorites are Canada and Russia but, I mean, I could see a surprise," Backstrom said with a slight smile. "Also, it can be good to be underdogs and maybe surprise a couple teams. I think it looks good from our side.

"We always have gold as the goal."

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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