DALLAS — It’s been a decade in St. Louis for big David Backes, a place where Stanley Cup dreams go to die. He’s a Blues lifer — 32 years old and likely to sign a sunset contract in the off-season — but an entire career wearing the Blue note has seen Backes land on the right side of the handshake line just twice.
Backes arrived in these playoffs freshly shorn after a charity endeavour, and boy, has he had his nose in it this spring.
As the sticks and pucks have left their marks, Backes has taken on the look of a prisoner doing hard time. And perhaps, when we’re talking about a career spent on the best NHL organization never to win jack, that is apropos.
On Sunday afternoon, Backes scored an overtime goal that squared this series at one game apiece, rescuing a Game 2 that the Blues had led 3-1 then let slip into overtime. “When he came in after the game, we started to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” laughed Patrik Berglund.
On his 32nd birthday, Backes stood sentinel in front of the net on an overtime power play while Alexander Steen unleashed a high hard one. It’s hockey’s most dangerous neighbourhood, inhabited by those like Backes who are most desperate for success.
“I could see the one-timer coming over, I figured if I could get (in goalie Antti Niemi’s) eyes and Steener got it up that it’s got a good chance to get in. And if he didn’t get it up I could turn around and find a rebound,” said Backes, who entered these playoffs without ever having scored a playoff OT winner, and now has two.
After a decade of not very much in April and May, Backes has paid his dues with the hockey gods. His centring pass in OT of Game 1 of these playoffs banked into the Blackhawks net off defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk, and on Sunday the rebound found his tape like iron shavings to a magnet.
“One of those fortuitous bounces right on my tape and slammed it home before anyone could realize where it is,” he said. “Jaromir Jagr, in all his wisdom at 44, said, ‘Who cares who scores?’ That’s the way we feel in this room.
“Who cares who scores? This series is tied back up.”
Since the playoffs began, Backes has belaboured a theme that this Blues team isn’t like all those old Blues teams that choked in the moment. That they were ready to win, and they’d show us.
When they coughed up a 3-1 lead to the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1 we all wondered, but the Blues overcame their own history to win that Game 7. When they needed a hero on Sunday the puck fell to Backes’ stick, and now perhaps we see the irony here.
Maybe the Blues actually are a different team. And maybe that is because the guy who’s been telling us about for the past three weeks is a different player.
“I’ve been in the league since ’95,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, “and I’ve only coached two players who are willing to absorb the shot. Lots of guys go into traffic but as the puck’s coming, they’ll jump out of the way or try to tip it. He’s … willing to absorb the puck and then make a play after that.”
To Canadian fans, Backes is that hated member of Team USA’s Olympic core who you really can’t hate that much, considering all the silver medals in his trophy case. In these playoffs he’s a younger version of Dave Andreychuk, Ray Bourque or Ray Whitney — a long-serving hockey man who plays the game in a way that Canadians approve.
If he were from Mississauga instead of Minnesota, we’d love this guy.
“He’s a guy that, every game he pushes it,” said young teammate Colton Parayko. “He wants to win, is the biggest thing, and every game he’s doing whatever he can — whether that’s scoring, making hits or sacrificing his body. When a guy like me sees that, it goes a long way.”
Backes is here now, looking at a team around him that has a chance in a year when a couple of the usual Western suspects — Chicago, L.A. — are out, and the other Western series has a couple of long shots in Nashville and San Jose.
The problem is, the Blues have Dallas, a team whose freewheeling style runs perpendicular to St. Louis’ game. So this series becomes like two people dancing, one who wants to do a two-step and the other trying to make it a waltz.
“It’s two completely different styles,” acknowledged Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. “When we get to it, it’s more of a grind, skating with pucks in their zone, forechecking well, not allowing that fast transition game to start. When they look good they’re flying through the neutral zone and getting shots at out net.
“It really is that the team who can establish their game first will be on top of things.”
If it’s this is going to be about who wants it more, I know where my money’s going.