Two St. Louis Blues players with much scrutiny heading into the playoffs were captain David Backes and goaltender Brian Elliott.
The longest-tenured Blue, having been here since the 2006-07 season, Backes is part of a core group that has found much regular-season success but also has tasted more than its share of bitter playoff defeats.
In Game 1 on Wednesday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Backes collected the first overtime game-winner of his career in a 1-0 victory with a cross-ice passing attempt that deflected in off the skate of Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Backes began the night with just one goal in his previous 10 playoff games and five playoff goals in 29 postseason games.
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“That’s an ugly goal,” said Backes, who had 21 goals and 45 points during the regular season and can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. “I specialize in those and rightfully so. We’re not going to complain one bit. It’s a victory and we’ll move on. We need to follow it up with another good effort on Friday.”
Backes has always been a team-first kind of guy, so even while scoring the game’s only goal he made sure the postgame spotlight found Elliott and many of his teammates.
That’s an ugly goal. I specialize in those and rightfully so. We’re not going to complain one bit. It’s a victory and we’ll move on. We need to follow it up with another good effort on Friday.
Blues captain David Backes on his game-winning goal
“We’re playing a great team and we’re going to have different guys stepping up all the time,” Backes said. “It was an opportunity for me to have a little bit of the spotlight tonight, but Friday it’s probably going to be someone else and Sunday someone else. But that’s the way we’re built, that’s the way we’ve done it all year and it’s a great recipe.
“All the guys here have bought into that sort of mentality.”
Including Elliott, who posted his first career playoff shutout as a starter. He also had a combined shutout with Jaroslav Halak against San Jose in 2012 when Halak left the game with an injury.
Elliott, who didn’t really grab the starting role until Jake Allen was sidelined with a knee injury, turned aside all 35 shots sent his way by the Blackhawks.
Some had a high degree of difficulty, including a breakaway stop on ‘Hawks captain Jonathan Toews seven minutes into the second period. Elliott also came up big when it counted, stopping eight shots during the third period and seven more in overtime.
“(Playoff) games are going to be close like this,” Elliott said. “To be able to battle it out and to keep grinding, not get down on ourselves at certain times, that shows character. You just want to go out and play and get wins.
“At this time of the year it’s just about that next game, you’re not looking in the past or the future. Just playing for today.”
We’ve put him in such big-pressure situations ... we’ve put him on an island, we’ve left him alone. He’s been the goalie for seven weeks and then Jake’s been the goalie for six weeks and they’ve had to play all the games. So they’ve been on that island.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock on Brian Elliott
Once Elliott got a sniff of the net late in the season, he was relentless. He was 11-1 in his final 12 games with a 2.06 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. That included three consecutive shutouts March 19-25 against Vancouver (twice) and San Jose.
“He’s been amazing or us all season long,” Brouwer said. “It must have been a tough choice for the coaches to figure out who was going to start the first game. We have a lot of confidence in both guys but Moose (Elliott), he’s our man right now. We gave up a couple 2-on-1’s and a breakaway early in the game and he stood tall for us, did a lot of good things.”
Was there extra pressure on Elliott, who was making his first playoff start since 2013?
“Well, it’s almost like water off a duck with him,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We’ve put him in such big-pressure situations ... we’ve put him on an island, we’ve left him alone. He’s been the goalie for seven weeks and then Jake’s been the goalie for six weeks and they’ve had to play all the games.
“So they’ve been on that island.”
Both goaltenders have been huge for their team at various times this season, but now it’s Elliott’s job to lose. This is the same Elliott the Blues passed over in past playoff runs to play Allen (2015), Ryan Miller (2014) and Jaroslav Halak before that.
“Like he said this morning, he’s used to it,” Hitchcock said of Elliott’s confidence. “He’s used to being the guy that had to go. I think he’s comfortable in that element now, which to me is a big change for Brian because he’s comfortable in this setting now.
“I think you see his athleticism come out now and you see his confidence come out now ... because he’s been put in this with the type of season we’ve had with these two guys getting hurt.”
Backes was also impressed.
“Ells was phenomenal,” Backes said. “He has been all year, whenever he’s been called upon. Tonight was no different.”
Backes wasn’t just a hero because he scored, he and linemates Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund held CHicago’s NHL scoring leader Patrick Kane and his dangerous line scoreless.
“He’s our captain and we look at him for a lot of leadership, and for him to do a lot of the little things a lot of the times that are overlooked,” Blues winger Troy Brouwer said. “For him to get rewarded and lead us in the first game, it’s a great feeling for us and a great feeling for him.”