Caps' Backstrom returns, expects to be back to normal soon

WASHINGTON — Nicklas Backstrom did so well on faceoffs with an injured hand he even surprised himself.

"It's the playoffs," Backstrom said after the Washington Capitals' 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night that evened the Eastern Conference final at two games apiece. "You've just got to grind. It felt good on the first couple faceoffs, so I just kept taking them."

Returning from a four-game absence with a right hand injury, Backstrom won six of nine faceoffs and looked more like himself as the night wore on. With Game 5 looming Saturday night at Tampa Bay, Backstrom's improvement is one of the keys to Washington bouncing back from consecutive home losses.

"I should get back to normal," Backstrom said after playing 18:51 night in his return. "I feel really good. I don't know (how normal) exactly. If I didn't feel good, I wouldn't play. The doctors wouldn't let me play, either."

Team doctors cleared Backstrom to play around lunchtime, and by pregame warmups he was drawing an ovation from fans thrilled to see him back in the lineup. The crowd roared when Backstrom won the faceoff on his first shift, and he got back into a rhythm centering the third line.

"It was so fun to be back out there," Backstrom said. "It's where everyone wants to be. You want to be on the ice. It's just too bad we didn't get the win."

A hard-luck loss included two penalties by fill-in No. 2 center Lars Eller, who has five in the past two games. Coach Barry Trotz didn't mess with his top two lines, but Backstrom could easily be promoted to skate with Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie in Game 5.

"We're going to need him pushing forward, especially now that he has a game under him," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "He'll take on more minutes and a bigger role. You could tell as the game went on he was getting more and more comfortable, so he's going to be a much-needed asset for us in these next few games, for sure."

Backstrom appears ready to do that. The 30-year-old Swedish center hadn't played since taking a slap shot from Pittsburgh's Justin Schultz on May 5, but if it were up to him, he would have been back much sooner.

"Nick has been champing at the bit for a while now," said Trotz, lauding Backstrom's game. "We've been holding him back a little bit, but he's ready to go."

Even on a team featuring Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals have gone how Backstrom has gone for the better part of a decade. He's the second-longest-tenured player on the team, and this was his first career game in the conference finals.

"As a hockey player, you want to play," Backstrom said. "It feels nice to be back."

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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