Backstrom steps into role as No. 1 center for Sweden
SOCHI -- Alex Ovechkin is the engine for everything with the Washington Capitals, but Nicklas Backstrom has always been the carburetor, finding ways to help make the superstar hum at maximum efficiency.
When Sweden came to the 2014 Sochi Olympics without Henrik Sedin and then lost Henrik Zetterberg after the first game of the tournament, Backstrom was back in a customary place as a No. 1 center. Without the two Henriks, the Swedes went from having three world-class centers to one, and a position of strength became a potential weakness.
To this point it hasn't been a problem, and that's part of why Sweden will play for the gold medal Sunday against Canada at Bolshoy Ice Dome (7 a.m. ET; NBC, CBC).
"I don't feel like I have pressure from outside," Backstrom said. "I always put pressure on myself and have high expectations of myself in a tournament like this or when you go into a new NHL season. That's a similar situation. I think that is enough, to put the pressure and expectations I have for myself. Obviously we have a lot of ice time and the coaching staff believes in us, so it is something we have to take care of."
Backstrom has played more than 18 minutes per game, with four assists in five games skating between Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks and Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins. Backstrom helped set up Sweden's first goal against Finland in a 2-1 semifinal victory Friday by carrying the puck toward the back of the net before sending it to Jonathan Ericsson at the top of the zone to start a tic-tac-toe play with Eriksson at the far post.
Without Sedin and Zetterberg, Backstrom is facing tough matchups and increased attention from opposing teams, something he's used to as the No. 1 center with the Capitals. He's also played a big role on the power play, which is 7-for-19 in the tournament.
"Nick's been great for us," Sweden captain Niklas Kronwall said. "He's been our leading centerman and taken upon more responsibility. I think he's done that with great success so far."
The Sedin brothers have played together since they were kids, a span that includes more than a decade in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks. If there was a fear that losing one Sedin would hurt the effectiveness of the other, that hasn't been the case: Daniel Sedin has a goal and four assists, giving him the most points among forwards on the team.
"He's been really good. It has been easy for me to play with him because he reminds me a lot of Henrik," Daniel Sedin said of Backstrom. "He likes to hold on to pucks. He likes to bring the puck up himself and he's a great passer. It has been fun."
For Backstrom too.
"It has been awesome. It has been a lot of fun," he said. "Daniel and me have pretty similar style of playing and thinking hockey the same way. It's fun to play with him. Loui goes in those dirty areas and he can score too. It is a lot of fun, two great players."
There will be extra pressure Sunday on Backstrom, not just because he can help Sweden win gold for the second time in three Olympics, but because of the opponent. This is the game where the Swedes could use the Henriks the most.
Canada will line up Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Matt Duchene at center. Backstrom will probably see a lot of Toews if Canada coach Mike Babcock has his way, and Sweden will hope to generate more offense than the United States did Friday in a 1-0 loss.
"It's not just our centermen. We have to do it as a unit of five out there every time on the ice," Kronwall said. "We know they have so much skill and so much will that if you don't play a perfect game, you're not going to come out on top.
"They just keep coming. Give them credit, it is amazing really to watch them play. They keep coming, keep coming, and it is tough to battle through that for 60 minutes, but hopefully tomorrow we can have the puck instead of them."
Patrik Berglund, Marcus Johansson and Marcus Kruger will line up behind Backstrom, and though the Swedes don't need to win the battle in the middle, they can't get overwhelmed either. Sweden has been efficient at getting the puck out of its end, but Canada's ferocious forecheck will be a new challenge.
"We miss [Sedin and Zetterberg] a whole lot because they are some of the best in the whole world," Berglund said. "We still wish we could have them on our team, but we've done an OK job and we're in the final. We still have a little bit more to climb to get where we want to be."
Backstrom is familiar with everyone on the Canada roster; after all, playing against them on a nightly basis in the NHL.
"We know they have good players," he said. "At the same time, we're a good team. We have guys who will work hard and we believe in ourselves and in our system. It is only one game, so anything can happen."