Wilson, Backstrom get legs underneath them in Caps returns originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
WASHINGTON — Never one to walk away from a fight, Tom Wilson had to ignore his instincts in Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Capitals’ hard-hitting forward joined Nicklas Backstrom in making their returns to action after each missed the first three months of the campaign recovering from offseason procedures. While neither was on any kind of minutes restriction, Wilson wasn’t yet ready to drop the gloves when Blue Jackets winger Mathieu Olivier tried to goad him into a fight early in the second period.
“He wanted to fight and I just said, ‘Hey, give me a game,’” Wilson said following the Capitals’ 1-0 victory. “So, you know, those are the great part of hockey and why you play the game and the passions and the competitive nature, it’s fun going up against those guys. But I had to politely decline at that point in the game.”
Both Wilson and Backstrom were skating in an NHL game for the first time since Washington’s first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers in May. They each spent over six months rehabbing and building up strength in order to be able to step in and contribute right away, but there’s no simulating the fast-paced game environment.
“I think it was just the conditioning part I was a little off,” Backstrom said, admitting that he felt pretty nervous heading into the game. “But I fell couple times, hit some players. So, it felt normal. So that part is fine. I just need to work on my stick handling.”
The 60 minutes the Capitals played Sunday couldn’t have been more different from the style of play they’ve grown accustomed to this season.
It was a physical, grinder of a game that saw Columbus outshoot the home team 37-19 and hold the puck in Washington’s zone. The Capitals were trying out several new line combinations and it showed with players not quite syncing up on passes to generate more offense. They got the win, but it was the first time they won a game with two or fewer goals in all of 2022-23.
“I thought we were off a little bit, a lot of things we were trying to do to get out — you got to give Columbus a lot of credit — just to get out of our zone, out of the neutral zone, we just seemed off with passing,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “It was behind us, it was ahead of us, it was in our skates and we just couldn’t get to the next level.”
Thanks to some sturdy goaltending on the part of Darcy Kuemper and a few key blocks in front of him, the Capitals still got the result they wanted while both Wilson and Backstrom were able to get important repetitions with their new linemates and power-play units.
“It’s one of the things that the team’s playing so well and guys did an amazing job while we were out stepping up and playing really good hockey,” Wilson said. “You know, the whole year guys were coming together and figuring things off and there’s a lot of new faces coming in this year and everyone’s done a great job and Nick and I try to come back in and bring what we can but the team’s playing well and just let them do their thing, too.
“There’s no perfect formula for that. We just gotta do our best and play as well as we can and chip in where we can and bring energy, bring some fresh mentality kind of halfway through the year here and just let guys keep doing their thing because everyone’s been great.”
Though the original plan was for Backstrom to come back before Wilson, the former tested positive for the coronavirus just before Christmas. As a result, their returns lined up nicely with the schedule where the team has just two games over the next six games. They will each get a chance to build more chemistry with their teammates in practice while continuing to build up the conditioning they’re going to need to get through the rest of the season.
“We haven’t had a lot of reps like that and, obviously, the situation is different too when you’re starting midseason,” Backstrom said. “It’s hard to get reps with the guys [during the year], but I think in time we’ll just adjust and make sure we’ll get better. We talked a little bit on the bench, me and Tom. We said the same things. Body-wise felt good, but it will be nice to get some reps and get into a routine here.”