The Washington Capitals got just 89 seconds into the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs before taking a significant blow to their lineup, when an unsuspecting Nicklas Backstrom was knocked to the ice by New York Islanders captain Anders Lee.
Backstrom, who was positioned near the benches and the blueline, flipped the puck towards the corner. Afterward, Lee came barreling in shoulder first and smashed Backstrom, who had his head turned away from Lee, backward onto the ice.
“It was a late hit on an unexpected player that was in a spot where he was extremely vulnerable,” Capitals head coach Todd Reirden told reporters after the game. “It’s as simple as that.”
“It’s predatory,” Reirden concluded.
The Capitals bench cried out in outrage. John Carlson, playing his first game back from injury, scrapped with Lee quickly after the play. Tom Wilson also tried to settle matters with his fists, fighting Lee later in the game.
“It looked real dirty to me,” Carlson said. The Capitals star defenseman added the hit something the League was “trying to take out of the game.”
Caps forward TJ Oshie was in a battle for the puck past the goal line when the hit occurred, around 60 feet away from Backstrom.
“It looked extremely late,” Oshie said. “There wasn’t even a puck” near Backstrom.
Lee will not face supplemental discipline for the hit from the NHL according to a report by Arthur Staple, who covers the Islanders for The Athletic.
Washington can ill-afford to lose Backstrom, the team’s all-time leader in playoff assists and second-highest postseason points producer.
“It’s hard seeing a leader and player like Backie — not only our team but a pretty good role model in the NHL go down like that on a late, cheap play,” Oshie said.
Backstrom skated a few more shifts to finish out the first period, but the Capitals later announced that Backstrom would not return. No specifics have been released, but as Backstrom did not appear to be physically laboring in his remaining shifts, one possible conclusion would be that he suffered a head injury (although at this point it’s merely speculation).
Under the NHL’s return to play rules, teams are only supposed to disclose when a player is deemed “unfit to play,” with any injuries or illness falling under that vague umbrella. Reirden, however, said Backstrom’s injury “absolutely” came from the Lee hit, and noted that Backstrom would continue to be evaluated tonight and tomorrow, when Reirden said he would know more about the injury.
Lars Eller, who missed Game 1 because of precautionary COVID-19 quarantine and testing protocols after returning to the D.C. area for the birth of his second child, is expected to play in Game 2, giving the Caps another center to slot into the lineup.
Islanders coach Barry Trotz, the former bench boss of the Capitals, defended his player after the game.
“Anders is making a hockey play,” Trotz said. “I don’t know if Nick was ready or not. Anders is a strong guy, the hit was made and they responded, he and Wilson fought, and that was probably the end of it. We’ll see.”
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin tried to offer a note of reassurance to reporters and perhaps his team, saying Backstrom was “a big boy” who could recover soon.
But Ovechkin conceded the Capitals would be diminished without Backstrom in the lineup.
“Everybody knows how good he is,” Ovechkin said.