Commentary

Fair or not, Nicklas Backstrom criticized

Updated: April 30, 2011, 5:14 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- His voice is barely above a whisper.

It is the soft voice of a player who knows he is not doing enough.

It is the quiet voice of a player who knows he must do more.

It is the whispery voice of a player failing at a time when his services are needed most.

It is the voice of Nicklas Backstrom.

"I mean, of course you're frustrated, especially when you had that tap-in yesterday," Backstrom told reporters at the team's practice facility Saturday. "You obviously want to help your team as much as you can. But the thing is, I mean, I'm trying to do my best all the time out there. I'm doing penalty killing and things like that, too.

"But I should have been scoring a lot more goals. That's for sure."

The tap-in to which Backstrom referred was a glorious chance during the second period of Game 1 of the Capitals Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. At the time, the Capitals led 2-1 and were dominating the Lightning.

[+] EnlargeNicklas Backstrom
James Lang/US PresswireAfter an Alexander Ovechkin scoring chance, the puck bounced free in the crease area and Nicklas Backstrom took several whacks at it but could not connect.

After a terrific Alex Ovechkin chance, the puck bounced free in the crease area, and Backstrom took several whacks at it but could not connect.

Who knows how this game would have turned out had the slick center made good on the chance? Would a 3-1 lead have been enough?

The point is moot, of course, given that Backstrom came up empty and the Lightning went on to score twice late in the second period then add an empty-netter to earn a 4-2 victory in Game 1.

It is a mug's game to single out one player on a team and suggest if only he had done more, been better the outcome would have been different.

Doesn't stop us from doing so, though.

And that is the nature of the playoffs.

Praise goes to those players who can find a way, regardless of their stature.

We watched Benn Ferriero score the overtime winner for the San Jose Sharks Friday night after being a healthy scratch for the first six games of the playoffs.

Steven Stamkos scored the winner in Game 1 against the Capitals on the power play after having a difficult first round.

Conversely, the failure to deliver those moments, especially for players whose raison d'etre is to score, to make plays, to push a team forward, brings with it the sting of criticism.

Throwing Marian Gaborik under the bus for his failures in the playoffs has become a rite of spring. How often did we question Marian Hossa during recent playoff years? Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau -- the list of top players who have somehow failed to deliver the goods is long.

Backstrom has been relatively free of such criticism. But that he did not score on the tap-in or later on a glorious chance from the deep slot off a terrific Ovechkin feed isn't all that surprising.

Backstrom has gone 14 straight games without a goal and has scored just three times in his last 24 games.

Perhaps more troubling for a player who has at times looked as though he is ready to assume a position as one of the game's top centers, he has gone without a goal in his last nine playoff games, dating back to last season's first-round ouster at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, and has just one goal in his last 11 postseason contests.

"Yeah, I mean, of course it's bugging me and it's a little frustrating, but in the same time you can't really do anything else and just keep working hard and try and go to the net and create other chances," Backstrom said.

Are there strategies Backstrom can try? Watching videos from times in which he was one of the most dynamic offensive centers in the game?

"Well I think that if you want to score goals you have to go in front of the net and make sure you get those dirty goals, and that's what I have to do and try and create my own chances," Backstrom said.

The center's play has been a bit of a curiosity this postseason.

Unlike a talent such as Alexander Semin, whose presence this playoff year has yo-yoed from the brilliant to the banal, sometimes from shift to shift, Backstrom appears neither here nor there.

"I think you take the scoring away and he's doing a really good job," coach Bruce Boudreau said Saturday. "He still plays the most of any minutes of our forwards. But I think he's squeezing the stick pretty tight.

"He wants to do really well. He doesn't give the puck away or anything like that. I think he's trying to be too cute and make the perfect play. And it's taking a toll on his scoring."

It's easy to suggest a player should score more. How to help him do that is more complex. Boudreau said he is in communication with his top pivot in the hopes of getting him back on track.

"I think you can give him some ideas," Boudreau said. "I gave him some ideas yesterday. And I'll talk to him in a few minutes and tell him what I think he was doing last night.

"But as a guy that took a lot of pride in his offensive game, I knew when things weren't going right for me it was always because I was trying to be too great or too cute or not shooting the puck enough. And I think when things don't go right you just got to get back to the basics."

It's early in these playoffs, one game into the second round. And Backstrom is young, just 23.

But sometimes the line between early and done is razor fine.

Another loss at home on Sunday night against Tampa, and all of a sudden the Washington Capitals' dream of a long playoff run will turn nightmarish.

It is not Backstrom's burden alone to turn things around. But the playoffs are an unforgiving time, especially when a team as talented as the Capitals is concerned.

"He got robbed on the doorstep yesterday, and if that goes in then he's off and going," said Mike Knuble, who is injured but often plays with Backstrom and Ovechkin. "Nick's a confident player, he's a great player, he's used to having a lot. Every team he's been on probably his whole life he's been the man and been the No. 1 guy."

"Obviously the pressure of the NHL playoffs is a little bit more, but he's trained for it. He's been a No. 1 center probably his whole life."

In the end, though, it doesn't matter that Backstrom is self-aware and candid about his need to be better.

This is a player in the first year of a 10-year contract extension that pays him an average of $6.7 million annually.

It is his job to deliver the goods. It is that simple.

Is there more pressure on him now than a couple of years ago? Of course.

"Yeah, absolutely, and it should be, too, and I put high expectation on myself, too," Backstrom said.

It is fair, then, to ask when expectation will give way to results. And for the Washington Capitals, the answer must be soon.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.