As the regular season comes to a close, playoff matchups emerging from the fog, and teams preparing for the grind of the NHL's second season, something becomes prevalent in the vernacular of broadcasters, writers, and analysts alike: that goals in the playoffs are harder to come by, and there's a special level to which a player must elevate his game in order to maintain success.
This isn't necessarily true, but the origins of the claim are understandable. Familiarity grows over the course of a four-to-seven game series, and so too does anticipation (and thereby prevention of goals). Throw in the raised stakes and therefore, ostensibly, raised "compete-level", and you've got yourself a cocktail for a stubborn scoresheet.
Of the Capitals' top three point getters, we know that Alex Ovechkin is one of the best playoff performers in the post-lockout era, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, in his first taste of the NHL Playoffs in 2014-15, ramped up his production from the regular season.
And so we turn our sights on Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals' third-leading scorer this season, and their second-best as measured by points-per-60. As tremendous as Nicklas Backstrom has been over the course of his career, his production has had an ugly tendency to drop off when the games matter most. Let's take a gander at Nicky's regular season and postseason production over the course of his career, starting with five-on-five play:
Apart from some strong postseason showings in 2008-09 and 2009-10 (ugh), Backstrom's production tends to drop off once all the games are nationally broadcast. There is room for optimism, though, as his production last year— his first playoff showing under the tutelage of Barry Trotz— was much closer to his regular season precedent.
But so much of Backstrom's impact over the year has come when the Caps are a man to the good. The power play is obviously a high-impact and potentially game-changing situation in every game, and for many years it was Backstrom's ability to coordinate from the half-wall that led to regular season success despite some shortcomings in even-strength play.
In fact, over the course of Nicklas Backstrom's career there isn't a single NHL player who has been more productive on the power play. That's an incredible advantage on any given night.
Unfortunately, Backstrom has largely been unable to sustain that success in the NHL's second season:
This is even more stark. How many more playoff games could the Capitals have won over the years if Backstrom's playoff power play productivity looked like his regular-season numbers? Obviously you can't pin it all on one guy, but there's no doubting that unit runs through the smooth-skating Swede, and in the postseason it simply hasn't been up to snuff.
Put it all together and it looks like this:
The reality is that a contender needs to get production from it's top-line center in order to find the level of playoff success that the Caps' seek this spring. Here's a look at the playoff production compared to regular season production from the top-line center spot of the five most recent Stanley Cup champions:
With the exception of Jonathan Toews in 2012-13, every single Cup-winning top-line center has improved their production from the regular season to the playoffs. Backstrom hasn't done it since 2009-10.
Last year's results under Barry Trotz were certainly promising, and the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov as a top-flight threat on the second line may ease some of the pressure on the Caps' top pivot. But if the Caps want to live up to the expectations they've created for themselves with an outstanding regular season, Nicklas Backstrom needs to be a better playoff performer than he's been for the past half-decade, plain and simple.