For the first time in the last month, the spotlight of a Washington Capitals game wasn’t squarely on Alex Ovechkin.
And it was a welcome sight for a surging Capitals team with postseason aspirations.
Star forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson — two key veterans who missed the team’s first 42 games due to injury — made their season debuts on Sunday in Washington’s 1-0 win over the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets.
Both players started the contest on alongside Ovechkin and played close to normal minutes. While neither registered a point, their presence was felt on the ice, especially as a boost to a team that’s been able to remain more than competitive without them.
Before the puck dropped, Backstrom and Wilson both earned loud applause from the Capitals faithful.
“It was a really cool experience,” Wilson said. “You can’t ever take it for granted, playing in the NHL. The fans, the roar when Nick and I came out, it’s a pretty special feeling, and just a thank you to everyone for all their support and from the city and all the fans. We definitely felt it.”
“Amazing. I couldn’t ask for anything else,” Backstrom said about the pre-game ovation. “That was something special, that’s for sure. Moments like that you’re never going to forget and it was very special.”
Washington (23-14-6) is now 13-2-2 in its last 17 games. Over the last month, the Capitals have gone from under .500 to third place in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division.
Backstrom, the Capitals’ all-time assists leader, returned to the ice after undergoing hip resurfacing surgery — an invasive procedure that he called a “last resort” — over the summer. He is now just the second NHL player to return from the surgery — with Ed Jovanovski in 2014 as the first.
Wilson, meanwhile, was back in uniform after recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in the playoffs last season.
“He’s no spring chicken anymore, and for him to step in and play well and get his feet back under him, it’s really inspiring,” Wilson said about Backstrom. “He’s been a huge inspiration for me throughout the whole process to push me and lead me and just be there for me every step of the way. So I’m just gonna try to reciprocate it and do whatever I can to help him get going.”
Wilson was expected to come back this winter, but Backstrom’s return is a pleasant development. Considering his history with hip issues and the uncertainty of the resurfacing surgery, Backstrom and the team entered the campaign without providing a concrete expectation on when the 35-year-old Swede could return.
Backstrom admitted after the game that he was extra nervous leading up to Sunday’s contest.
“I get a little nervous every game, but this was obviously something different,” Backstrom said. “I haven’t been this nervous before a game, I’ll be honest about that.”
“It meant the world,” he added about making his return. “Obviously, I missed this and with not knowing what my future was going to hold, just coming back and playing was great.”
Backstrom, who has played alongside Ovechkin since 2007, is crucial as a distributor on the power play. The Capitals entered Sunday ranked 16th in power play percentage at 22.4%.
Wilson, a 28-year-old winger, is coming off the best season in his NHL career. Known more for his physical presence and bone-crushing hits, Wilson registered career highs in goals (24) and assists (28) in 2021-22.
“We went through this together and we’ve been hanging out with each other every day, so it’s obviously special to do it together,” Backstrom said about making his season debut alongside Wilson.
The return of Backstrom and Wilson marks a turning of the page for Washington’s season. The Capitals spent the first three months of the season as the NHL’s most injured team — leading the league in cap money on injured reserve. That should no longer be the case, even with defenseman John Carlson being placed on long-term injured reserve on Saturday after taking a slapshot to the face in December.
“We just gotta do our best and play as well as we can,” Wilson said about how he and Backstrom now can fit in with the red-hot Capitals. “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.”
The Capitals drew first blood early in Sunday’s contest when Erik Gustafsson rang the bell less than three minutes into the game. The blueliner’s wrister deflected off Columbus defenseman Tim Berni’s skate and went through the five-hole of goalie Elvis Merzlikins.
Gustafsson, who entered the season with just 32 goals in six years, has been on a tear since mid-December with seven goals and eight assists in his last 11 games.
Washington goalie Darcy Kuemper kept the Blue Jackets at bay for the shutout. The blank sheet is Kuemper’s fourth this season in just 26 starts. He saved all 37 of Columbus’ shots and gave the Capitals a key win despite his offense generating just 19 shots on goal.
“Yeah, good teams can find a way in a lot of different ways, and tonight was one of them,” Kuemper said. “As the season goes along, things get a little bit tighter, so it’s nice to be able to get the ones like tonight.”
The Capitals have two days off before returning to the ice Wednesday in Philadelphia.