Nicklas Backstrom would later say that no words needed to be exchanged, but in the moment, after a long embrace with his longtime teammate, Backstrom held Alex Ovechkin at arms’ length and told him something: “One more.”
They’ve been partners in playoff heartbreak for a decade, so both seemed to understand that they should share in their post-season joy together. After Ovechkin and Backstrom each slipped on their new “Eastern Conference Champions” hats on the ice in Tampa, they found each other for a hug that acknowledged their long and oft-painful journey to that point. And then those two words reminded how close they now are to a first Stanley Cup.
“All it took was 11 years,” Backstrom cracked.
“Been through all the battles, all the playoffs, all the losses,” Ovechkin said. “It’s just emotion, you know? Finally, we get what we want, to be in the Stanley Cup final.”
Backstrom and Ovechkin actually became intertwined 12 years ago. It was then-Capitals general manager George McPhee who brought the two together, and now the duo will have to get past McPhee’s Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup finals.
When the Capitals selected Backstrom with the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, it was Ovechkin who announced the choice and greeted the soft-spoken Swede with a jersey.
“It was amazing,” Backstrom said that day in Vancouver. “He has good speed and is a goal scorer. Maybe we can do it together. I can be a playmaker to him.”
By the end of Backstrom’s rookie season, he was Ovechkin’s regular centre, more partner than sidekick. While Ovechkin scored with flash, Backstrom was the subtle force that made it all work. He was there the day owner Ted Leonsis announced a 13-year contract for Ovechkin at a season-ticket holder party in 2008, and two years later, Backstrom was awarded a 10-year deal that ensured the two would become franchise cornerstones together, both locked up through at least the 2019-20 season.
There was optimism then. Backstrom was just 22 and Ovechkin was 24, and though that 2010 season ended with one of Washington’s more notable early playoff exits — the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals were upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round — the team’s “Young Guns” core seemed to have a Stanley Cup in their future. They were talented, and they had time.
But after six more post-seasons ended short of the conference finals, just Backstrom and Ovechkin remained of the original “Young Guns.” Forward Marcus Johansson, who signed his entry-level deal the same day Backstrom signed his 10-year contract, was traded last summer as the Capitals ran into salary-cap constraints. And this fall the least-talent-rich and least-experienced Washington roster in recent memory looked more likely to miss the playoffs than to make a deep run. Backstrom and Ovechkin didn’t even play on the same line for 22 games, and a team source suggested at the time that there may have been some animosity between the two to cause the separation.
But the Capitals’ season turned around with their reunion in a game against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 22, when Backstrom assisted on an Ovechkin goal just like old times. When Washington finally advanced past the Pittsburgh Penguins and the second round of the playoffs for the first time in both of their careers, Backstrom was out of the lineup because of an injury to his right hand. He was waiting for Ovechkin in the locker room after the game, and without taking any of his equipment off first, Ovechkin strode straight toward Backstrom to embrace.
“It was just a special moment,” Backstrom said more than a week later. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
The hand injury kept Backstrom sidelined for the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals, and the Capitals won two of those. Even now that he’s back, he’s been careful to high-five his teammates with his left hand. It’s been Evgeny Kuznetsov who has centred Ovechkin throughout this post-season; the two have combined for 23 goals and 46 points. But the morning before Backstrom returned to the lineup for Game 4 of the series, Ovechkin was clear on his importance: “He’s our leader. We all love him.”
“(Ovechkin’s) sort of the lightning rod to a lot of successes or failures,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said recently. “Nick has been the sidekick, sort of the Batman and Robin type of thing. They’ve been together, lived all this.”
Minutes after their hug on the ice, Ovechkin and Backstrom returned to the locker room with the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Eastern Conference champions. They held it up together, each with one hand on the base, and posed for a photo. They’re hoping for one more, with a hulking silver cup instead of a trophy.
“You just have to look at each other,” Backstrom said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this, so now we’re in the finals and we’re going to do everything we can to do something special here for us, for the team and for the city.”