Nicklas Backstrom is a terrific hockey player and by all accounts, a quality person.

Backstrom made the All-Rookie team in 2008. His 258 points during his first three seasons are the most by any Washington Capital not named Ovechkin. Only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, fellow Hall of Famers Denis Savard and Peter Stastny and some guy named Crosby had more assists during their first NHL seasons than Backstrom.

However, two games into the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals and seven games into the Caps’ quest for their first Stanley Cup, the 23-year-old Swedish center has been virtually invisible.

Actually, that’s inaccurate. Only Ovechkin (24) and Alexander Semin (25) have taken more shots than Backstrom’s 22. Trouble is that none of his have found the net.

Backstrom, who has averaged a point a game during his four regular seasons and who had scored 30 points in 28 games during his three previous postseasons, has just two points (both assists) in seven games this spring.

Other than Jason Chimera – who scored the series-changing overtime game-winner in the conference quarters against the New York Rangers – Backstrom is also the only skater on one of Washington’s three top lines with a negative (minus-1) plus/minus rating.

The difference is that Chimera isn’t a star. Backstrom is. He, Ovechkin, Semin and defenseman Mike Green are the Caps’ top players so it really hurts when they come up small, especially on the impotent power play.

In 2008, veteran goalie Cristobal Huet failed to come through in the conference quarters against a more proven Philadelphia team and was soon an ex-Cap. Defense was the problem again the next year in the conference semis against eventual champion Pittsburgh.

Last spring, Semin (no goals, two points) and Green (no goals, three assists) disappeared in the stunning seven-game loss to eighth-seeded Montreal.

Tonight, the Caps will take the ice in Game 3 at Tampa Bay trailing the underdog Lightning 2-0 in the series after losing 4-2 (including an empty-net goal) and 3-2 (in overtime) at home.

While a Backstrom goal could have made all the difference in Game 2, that’s history. But it will be nearly impossible for Washington to recover from a third straight defeat.

If Backstrom doesn’t get his groove back the next two nights in Tampa and the Caps end up being upset in the playoffs for a fourth straight spring, he’ll be the number one man to blame.

david elfin sm David Elfin On Sports: Backstrom Needs His Groove BackDavid Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.


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