Nicklas Backstrom is more likely to win the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play than he is to drop the gloves. In 404 regular season and playoff games before Monday, Washington’s Swedish center had accumulated all of 202 penalty minutes which translates into a minor penalty ever four games.
And yet, Backstrom, who missed one game shy of half this season with a concussion, won’t be on the ice for the Caps in tonight’s must-win Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Verizon Center, He has been suspended by the NHL for the cross-check – his third of the night — that he delivered out of frustration to the face of Boston’s Rich Peverly, who had tripped Caps captain Alex Ovechkin and then raised his stick, as the Bruins completed their come-from-behind 4-3 victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.
“(Peverly) was going after Ovi first and then I was just turning around (before the cross-check),” explained Backstrom, who didn’t say that he had been unfairly disciplined. “I’m sorry about that. It was stupid on my part.”
Although Backstrom said that he’s OK with the physical part of the game being amped up during the playoffs, Troy Brouwer said that his teammate had every right to be wary of Peverly.
“There’s been a couple time where they’ve gone after (Nicky’s) head and grabbed him and thrown him to the ice so I can understand why Nicky is a little bit nervous when sticks come up,” Brouwer said.
Brouwer won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. Peverly and Boston won the Cup last year. Washington has never held Lord Stanley’s silver trophy aloft after any of its 36 previous seasons and Monday night’s loss means that only winning three out of four games from the defending champs will prevent that streak from stretching to zero-for-37.
This is the second time during their three playoff showdowns that the Bruins have brought out the worst in the Caps, who did beat Boston in 1998 en route to their only Cup finals.
As Washington was about to fall behind Boston 3-0 in the 1990 conference finals, Caps center Dale Hunter gave Bruins defenseman Glen Wesley a facewash. In other words, Hunter pushed Wesley’s face into the ice at the Capital Centre. That rough stuff drew the ire of Boston coach Mike Milbury, who famously said that he wouldn’t have the pugnacious Hunter on his team “if he was the last player on earth.” Coming from Milbury, who as a Bruins defenseman had climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden to go after a particularly obnoxious New York Rangers fan in 1979, the assertion was laughable.
Which brings us back to Backstrom and his ticked-off coach, who just happens to be Hunter, the only player with at least 3,000 penalty minutes and 1,000 points during his career.
Hunter said that the Bruins have been going after Backstrom’s head, knowing that he missed 40 games with the concussion from which he only returned on March 31.
“It is crossing the line,” Hunter said. “To grab his head all the time is not the right way to play. Every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on. He (got) blockered to the head by (Boston goalie Tim) Thomas the game before. He’s got to protect himself. If you get a second concussion, you’re out a long time. … He doesn’t just cross-check somebody in the face. He’s not like that.”
Hunter is correct. And Bruins pests Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand certainly aggravated Backstrom and the Caps during Game 3.
The trouble, as was the case with Milbury’s 1990 beef about Hunter, is the source of the complaint. Hunter is best known in hockey for his cheap shot on New York Islanders star Pierre Turgeon during the 1993 playoffs that earned him a record 21-game suspension.
“I’m proud of Pev for … taking the cross-check to the face and not embellishing,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “That’s what I want my team to keep doing.”
And why not? After the teams had combined for just four goals in 144 minutes in Games 1 and 2 in Boston, the Bruins got Hunter’s Caps somewhat out of their defensive-minded style in Game 3 in Washington. And now they’ve got Backstrom, who won Game 2 with a goal in double overtime and whose brilliant long pass set up Brooks Laich for the goal that tied Game 3 with six minutes left, off the ice tonight.
The Caps will have desperation and home ice on their side, but they won’t have Backstrom, the player whom general manager George McPhee would make the difference between them being as good as anyone in the East and an also-ran.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.