By Larry Wigge
In front of the net, where the big boys earn their living. It's a spot where David Backes makes his living.
The St. Louis Blues captain said he could sort of read the play as it was happening -- in the heat of the moment -- when urgency was at its highest as the Blues went on a power play midway through the overtime period against the Dallas Stars.
"I could see the one-timer coming over, so I figured if I could get in Niemi's eyes," Backes explained, knowing that Alexander Steen loves to fire it from the point and goaltender Anti Niemi might be screened or distracted.
"I figured I could turn around and find the rebound with one of those fortuitous bounces right on my tape and slam it home," continued Backes. "I think Jaromir Jagr in all his wisdom at 44 said, 'Who cares who scored?' And that’s the way we feel in this room. Who cares who scored? We got this series tied back up."
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock gushed over the leader and fortitude of Backes, who gave the Blues a 4-3 victory over the Dallas Stars and 1-1 tie in the series with his goal at 10:58 of overtime.
"I've been in the league since '95," Hitchcock said, kind of looking the some help for the year. "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.
"Not David Backes. He's one of two players that I've had that's been able to hang in there with the shot, so he's willing to absorb the puck and then make a play after that. That is very unique because there's not many players that will do that. David even practices it on a daily basis. I find it amazing that you get an athlete, especially in this day and age that's still willing to absorb all those pucks."
Hitchcock was asked who the other warrior was?
"He got hurt doing it. Raffi Torres .... was the other guy," Hitchcock said, remembering his days with Columbus. "Only guys for me that I've ever coached that are willing to absorb the shot."
The win for the Blues was their first victory in a second-round playoff game since May 7, 2002 against the Detroit Red Wings. St. Louis had gone 0-7 since.
And Backes' OT winner, who has a persona of a hard-nosed hockey player who delivers bone-crunching checks and heavy shots in his role as the captain of the St. Louis Blues, makes him the second player in franchise history to score multiple overtime goals in one playoff season. Pierre Turgeon did it in 1999.
The Blaine, Minnesota, native, was coming off a 21 goals and 24 assist season. But he has had three goals and three assists in nine playoff games and is opening some eyes in the Blues front office during coming up on his contract year.
In fact, Backes has now scored eight playoffs goals along with 11 assists in 38 games.
Celebrating his 32-year-old birthday, Backes scored 9:04 into overtime to give the Blues a 1-0 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round.
The 10-year veteran has made it his business to be opportunistic in these playoffs.
Backes' centering feed from the lower left circle, intended for Steen on the other side of the net, caromed off the skate of Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and went through the legs of goalie Corey Crawford and it was Backes, parked just behind the net, set up Jaden Schwartz in front for a 3-2 victory in Game 3 against Chicago.
"When I look at David Backes I see kind of a mirror of my career," Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown, winner of two Stanley Cups, said. "You try to make an impact any way you can. We both started out by trying to impact a game with our size and our hits. In the process, you open up ice for yourself and your teammates.
"Like with me, you soon gain the confidence to do more things with your skills -- and David has obviously begun using his instincts at center to make plays and score more goals. You can see he's worked really hard to improve himself."
Power. Passion. Production. Priceless.
Actually, David Backes looks like hell. His eyes are red-rimmed, with dark circles under them. The many places where his face has been stitched over the years stand out pink against the ghostly playoff pallor all hockey players eventually acquire from too many hours in cold rinks and on buses and in hotel meeting rooms.
And his head shaved.
"Yeah, it may be a little POW at the moment," Backes says, grinning.
The look is partly self-inflicted. He and his wife sponsored a charity challenge fund-raiser through their Athletes For Animals initiative, and part of Backes' pledge was that if his team won, he would shave his head.
Backes came to the Blues after his junior season at Minnesota State. He was drafted in the second round, 62nd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He is a power forward, whose career high is 31 goals in 2009-10.
Steve and David's mother Karen were faced with the life-changing decision. Steve Backes was working for a railroad company, had tremendous longevity there -- 25-plus years -- and was faced with the decision of uprooting his family and transferring to Dallas.
But instead, Steve Backes chose not to uproot, kept his family in Minnesota for the sake of his kids (along with David's sister Melanie) and live in a comfortable and familiar environment.
"The sacrifices my parents made for me are ones you never forget," said David Backes, who will fulfill a lifelong dream of representing the USA today when ice hockey competition begins in the XXI Winter Olympic Games. "My folks made the ultimate sacrifice."
Growing up in Spring Lake Park, David was a multi-sport athlete as he played soccer, baseball, tennis and, of course, hockey.
"We didn't want him to eat, drink, sleep and do everything hockey as a kid," said Karen, who added that by playing other sports, David wouldn't get burnt out by just focusing on one sport. It also helped that David enjoyed other sports, and they likely helped him become a better athlete.
It worked for David.
"Once I could finally skate, my buddies and I would bring our skates and sticks to school and go right to the outdoor rink after," Backes said. "We'd play every single day 'til our parents came and got us. That's what we did to bond, and that’s really where you fall in love with the game -- when you're out there with your toes frozen, your hands frozen, but you don't care and don't want to go inside.
"All the way through middle school, I'd go to the rink, my parents would come and get me for dinner, I'd do homework, go to bed and repeat it the next day."
One thing we knew about Backes before he arrived in St. Louis for the 2006-07 season is that he is a quick learner and really, really smart. He had straight A’s from 9th grade through his junior year at Minnesota State at Mankato while working toward a degree in electrical engineering. Not too shabby, eh?
The only drawback, Backes says, is he wanted to play for the University of Minnesota. But ...
"As much as it's painful to admit, I was kind of a Gopher fan," he remembered. "When I went to the Gophers, just asking them to extend any offer, whatever it may be to show that they were interested, they declined."
Then-General Manager Larry Pleau remembered how he and Blues Assistant GM and chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen sat down with Backes and told him he needed to fill out physically and add another half step in his skating. The following summer, David borrowed the money from his parents to go over to Finland to attend a skating school that Kekalainen recommended. That's the kind of commitment is what the Blues expect from this youngster.
Backes’ skating has improved every year since.
"No hockey in my background at all. My dad played junior college baseball. I might have been headed there as well, until my friends finished the baseball season one year and went right into hockey ... and I kind of tagged along with them."
Having seen Backes’ love to mix it up in the traffic areas in the corners and in front of the net, I suggested there wasn’t much physical contact in baseball. To which he said; "But I kind of miss the sunflower seeds in baseball."
On draft day in 2002, Kekalainen gushed about Backes, saying, "To me, he's a great competitor. Loves to look into the face of an opponent and then beat him. He was clearly one of the major factors with his leadership in Lansing's championship team in the USHL."
That's what made Backes as competitive as possible for all these years with the Blues.
David Backes remembers going to a lot of Minnesota Wild games with a buddy whose parents had season tickets. Sure, he watched with wonder the moves by Marian Gaborik, but his eyes would more often wander in another direction.
"I still have that Minnesota Wild sweater in my closet at home, but ..."
Backes wasn't afraid to name the names that caught his attention.
"I really liked to watch the power forwards ... the guys who did the heavy work around the net and in the corners like Brendan Shanahan or Keith Tkachuk, Jarome Iginla or Mark Messier, Peter Forsberg or Joe Thornton, Bill Guerin or Owen Nolan."
You can proudly mention David Backes into that mix of all-star power forwards.