St. Louis Blues captain and Spring Lake Park native David Backes has his club once again in position to make a strong push into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Last season the Blues reached the Western Conference semifinals before eventual cup champion Los Angeles swept them out of the playoffs. St. Louis, the No. 2 seed, downed No. 7 San Jose in the opening round 4-1 before the eighth-seeded Kings caught fire at the right time.
The abbreviated 2012-13 regular season didn’t start until January, giving way to a 48-game regular season.
Game 40 showed how the Minnesota Wild and Blues (Game 39) are trending in opposite ways, which bodes well for the Blues captain.
The Blues sat in sixth place with 48 points, two points out of fourth place but only four points ahead of eighth place. Minnesota sat seventh with 46 points, four points clear of ninth-place Phoenix.
No doubt the standings will continue to change over the final two weeks of the regular season.
Backes returned home to face Minnesota for the second time in 10 days April 11 and with a 2-0 win, completed the three-game season sweep of the future divisional foes, once realignment goes into effect in the 2013-14 season.
The Blues scored their opening goal when Backes shoveled the puck out of the defensive zone to jump-start the counterattack. Andy McDonald finished the play with a shot that trickled through Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom’s pads midway through the final period.
Backes collected his 18th assist, 23rd point of the season. He has four points in six games, but the Blues faithful have made him enemy No. 1 for not scoring more, according to recent stories in the St. Louis media.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock stood up for the captain in a recent story saying that the team requires him to lead in so many other areas, scoring might be the toughest because of the added spotlight on scoring over hustle on the forecheck, for instance, or winning face-offs.
Backes could have had a second assist if Adam Cracknell had finished an excellent scoring chance. Backes hit Cracknell with a pass as he stood in front of Backstrom with about five minutes left in the third period.
The win was the sixth straight for the Blues, while Minnesota fell to 1-5 over the same time. Blues goalie Brian Elliot posted his third straight shutout and hasn’t given up a goal in nearly 190 minutes.
The Blues started the season 6-1-0, but then lost five in a row to fall back into reality. Since then the team has bounced around .500 until April’s 6-0 start.
Backes said the team’s been streaky at times, trying to find its identity. “As of late we found a good recipe for success; play good defensively, try to limit the opposition’s chances and not give them anything and find ways to put a couple [pucks] in the other net,” he said.
Playing 48 games in just over three months, only added pressure to win or forget the losses as soon as possible.
The strong start was followed by the losses and a poor home stand. “And we did a little soul-searching,” Backes said.
“It’s terrible to play that way, we get a lot of guys that put in a lot of effort. But we found it’s worth that effort to have the ice packs on after the [wins].”
The Blues goals as of late haven’t been the most pretty but still count on the scoreboard, Backes said.
“It’s a funny game,” he said. “You have great opportunities for weeks and never get a goal, then, like you said, the other night I’m on my back and I just whack at it and it finds a way in.”
With the compressed schedule, thanks to the lockout, Backes said it took the team some time to regain the confidence it played with last season. “We take care in the defensive zone, work hard and don’t give them anything and make them earn it all,” he said. “We’re finally on the same page we were on for most of last year.”
Eight months between full-speed games took its toll early.
“I point more to the time off,” Backes said, instead of the compressed schedule for the streaky play.
“When was the last time professional hockey players had eight months straight off,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Backes skated with other pros in the Twin Cities during the lay-off period, in addition to his NHLPA duties. By October Backes admitted that he was more than ready to get back on the ice for regular-season games, fully healed and recharged for another season.
“That feeling was there until October,” he said. “Then you say, ‘Ok.’ Let’s go.’
“We got beat out in early May and didn’t come back until January. For a lot of guys to get back into the groove, it took them a little time.”
Ahead of the Blues’ final regular season game in Minnesota, Backes took a few teammates to dinner in White Bear Lake before retreating to his home in the northern suburbs for a rare in-season night’s sleep in his Minnesota bed.
He might need the extra rest given the intensity that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Jason Olson is at firstname.lastname@example.org