While he was indeed a baseball player back home in Minnesota, among other sports, the passion for St. Louis Blues forward David Backes eventually shifted to hockey and that led him to the NHL.
Backes’ baseball skills transferred over to his hockey tool kit, as the gritty forward showed once again Sunday in a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
With the Blues on a first-period power play, Backes assumed his usual spot in front of the net. Staring right at a puck being rocketed his way by Kevin Shattenkirk, Backes ducked down a bit and managed to get the shaft of his stick on the puck, making it change directions as the deflection eluded Sharks goalie Martin Jones.
“It’s a trust that’s built on repetition, no question,” said Backes, who is tied for the Blues’ playoff scoring lead with seven goals and 13 points. “It only takes one or two stray ones that you’ve got to build that back up again. Steener (Alexander Steen) shoots it real hard, Shatty (Kevin Shattenkirk) shoots it hard ...
“A guy like Colton (Parayko) starting the year, we had to have a little talk before we even had the first shot of, ‘Hey, dial it back to like 70 percent. Let’s build this up and maybe you can start humming a few in there.’’’
Backes’ practice routine includes deflections from all sorts of angles on pucks shot by assistant coach Ray Bennett. It’s much tougher than it looks.
“You do that after practice time and time again,” Backes said. “You know that in a game situation it’s going to be second nature and it’s proven successful for us for a while here.”
“First of all, he’s a baseball player,” Hitchcock said. “Hand-eye coordination is a little bit different than other people. He’s good at it. I think it’s just a feel part for him that he really wants ... he knows how important it is to his game.”
During an earlier playoff series, Backes compared the unique skill to hitting a baseball.
“That’s what he did as a kid,” Hitchcock said. “He was obviously a good ballplayer. He feels that the more he does that, the more confident he is.”
It takes confidence, but also more than a bit of toughness.
Backes is trying to get a deflection on a shot as well as getting his body in the way to screen goaltenders.
While he’s doing that, he’s being pushed, prodded and whacked at by defensemen and still trying to get the blade of his stick on a small puck coming hsi way at speeds of 90 mph or more.
“I haven’t coached many players that hang in there on the shot,” Hitchcock said. “Most of them jump out of the way and try to put the stick in there. You look at the goal he scored yesterday, he hung in there and was ready to absorb the shot.
“If it would have hit him, it would have hit him. He’s a very unique player that way.”
Speaking of hits, Backes set a Blues franchise record with 11 hits Sunday in Game 1 against the Sharks. By comparison, the entire Sharks team was credited with 14 hits.
Backes ranks second in the playoffs with 68 hits and he also is tied for the Blues’ playoff scoring lead with seven goals and 13 points in 15 games,
Ironically, Backes had only five goals and the same 13 points in his first 29 playoff games. He’s taken off this spring and is helping drag the team along with him, one win at a time.
It takes a special breed to do what Backes does in front of the net. Perhaps a bit of craziness as well.
“There’s net-front presences, but not many that hang right in there until the shot comes through and then turns around and tries to find the puck,” Hitchcock said “That’s what he does.”
Shattenkirk said having Vladimir Tarasenko and Steen on the power play unit guarantee Backes a bit more maneuverability in front.
“Vladdy and Steener open up a lot of space on the sides and you have to pick your poison,” Shattenkirk said. “Those guys have great shots. People feel like they have to get out there and try to take shots away and it gives David just enough time and space to be able to look for pucks and deflect them.”
The Blues still use Backes at center at times, but Hitchcock believes the big forward can do even more damage while playing on the wing.
“I think he’s able to play as a hunter and I think he enjoys that,” Hitchcock said. “It allows him the freedom to get on forecheck, to stay in the offensive zone a little bit longer. I think it allows him to be a net presence and feel comfortable doing that.
“I think quite frankly it’s his best position. He can play center ice, we use him on faceoffs as you saw tonight but he’s much better as a hunter.”