Backstrom proud ahead of 1,000th NHL game with Capitals

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But with Backstrom expected to play his 1,000th NHL regular-season game when the Capitals host the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSWA, MSG-B, NHL.TV), he paused briefly to appreciate the number’s significance.

“First of all, just getting 1,000 games, it’s a lot of games in this League and I’m proud of that,” Backstrom said. “And second of all, to do it with the same team is very fortunate and I’m very, very happy about that, to get to play 1,000 with the same team.”

Backstrom will become the second player to play 1,000 games with the Capitals, joining left wing Alex Ovechkin (1,191 games), and the 69th player in NHL history to play 1,000 games with one team. It seems fitting Ovechkin and Backstrom are 1-2 in games with the Capitals as well as 1-2 in points. Ovechkin leads with 1,317 (728 goals, 589 assists) and Backstrom is second with 971 (257 goals, 714 assists).

They’ve been linked since Ovechkin, subbing for then-Capitals general manager George McPhee, stepped to podium at the 2006 NHL Draft in Vancouver to announce the No. 4 pick and said, “The Washington Capitals are happy to pick Nicklas Backstrom.”

That was beginning of their special relationship as linemates and friends who teamed to lead the Capitals to a first-place finish in their division 10 times in their first 13 seasons together and win the Stanley Cup for first time in 2018.

“‘Ovi’s’ probably 1 and Nick’s a close 1A as to what those guys mean to this organization,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “Nick, he’s a special player in a sense that he makes everyone around him better, myself included. Who knows how much money he’s made other guys with their contracts and he’s never asked for any credit for any of it. And that’s an amazing quality in today’s age.”

Backstrom has been the perfect complement to Ovechkin on and off the ice with his unselfishness, playmaking skill and quiet confidence meshing with Ovechkin’s goal-scoring and outgoing personality.

He has assisted on 269 of Ovechkin’s 728 goals (37 percent), helping him climb within three of Marcel Dionne for fifth in NHL history. Since Backstrom began his NHL career in 2007-08, no player has more than his 714 assists.

Video: PHI@WSH: Backstrom scores PPG in 1st period

Ovechkin leads the Capitals with 22 goals this season and Backstrom leads them with 30 assists and 43 points.

“We [started] together to build this relationship and build this chemistry, and I think we enjoy [playing] together,” Ovechkin said. “And I think we all understand how we have to play, and if we have that joy, I think we’ll have fun.”

Scoring goals is fun for Backstrom, too. The 33-year-old is third on the Capitals with 14 goals in 43 games this season, which is two more than he scored in 61 games last season.

“It’s obviously special to score a goal, I would say, but it’s nice to have a nice setup, too,” Backstrom said. “I think comparing them both, it’s nice to be involved. It means you’re creating scoring chances, right?”

Backstrom said he was more of a goal-scorer when he was growing up in Gavle, Sweden, until he was 15. 

“Then I just switched,” he said.

Assistant GM Ross Mahoney, who was the Capitals director of amateur scouting when Backstrom was drafted, recalls reports from Mats Weiderstal, Washington’s Sweden-based scout, mentioning Backstrom’s goal-scoring prowess as a youth. Mahoney first saw Backstrom play as a 17-year-old for Sweden’s under-18 team in 2004-05.

After Backstrom excelled as an 18-year-old playing for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League in 2005-06, scoring 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 46 games, Mahoney and McPhee traveled to watch him play an exhibition game for Sweden prior to the 2006 IIHF World Championship in Riga, Latvia and met with him afterward with an eye on the upcoming 2006 draft.

The Capitals wanted a center to play with Ovechkin and were certain they’d get one with Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and Backstrom available in the draft. After the St. Louis Blues selected defenseman Eric Johnson with the No. 1 pick, the Pittsburgh Penguins took Staal at No. 2 and the Chicago Blackhawks took Toews at No. 3.

“It worked out better than I thought,” Mahoney said. “We had Nick rated very, very high on our list and we were picking fourth, so you think you’re going to get an impact player. But Nick has turned out to be even better than I thought.”

Backstrom, who will become the 14th Sweden-born player to play 1,000 NHL games, knew little about Washington or the area around it before he was drafted. Since then, it’s become his home with fiancée Liza Berg and their three children: daughter Haley, 7, son Vince 4, and daughter Alizee, 1, who will attend the game Thursday.

Backstrom passed on a chance to become an unrestricted free agent after last season and signed a five-year, $46 million contract Jan. 14, 2020 with the hope of playing his entire career with the Capitals.

“If that could happen, that would be great,” Backstrom said. “I love the team, I love the city, and I love the fans and everything. It’s important. Me and my family have fallen in love with the city, so to be able to do that, that’s great.”

His proudest moment so far was defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. It was the first time Washington advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1998 and ended years of frustration for Backstrom and Ovechkin.

“If you look at our careers so far, it’s been very special,” Backstrom said. “A lot of ups and downs, but at the same time, we got to share 2018, which was a great, great experience. And I think if you look at it too, we’re getting older, but I feel like we’re not done, we’re not satisfied, which is a good thing.”

Winning is what drives Backstrom most. When he became the 54th player in NHL history to reach 700 assists by setting up Washington’s lone goal in a 5-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on March 5, the milestone meant little to him that night because it came in a defeat.

So, he hopes the Capitals win his 1,000th game. But he won’t dwell on it long regardless.

“It’s obviously a nice milestone, but at the same time I feel like I have a lot of years left,” Backstrom said. “It’s more about the mentality of ‘Keep going’ and not be satisfied and strive for more. That’s the mindset you have to have or least I have.”

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