St. Louis Blues captain Dave Backes was a multi-sport athlete while growing up in a small town in Minnesota, which is a good thing. Maybe he doesn't score the opening goal in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals if he had spent his summers on the ice instead of on the diamond.
The Blues were on a first-period power play when Backes went to the front of the net to screen San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones. The puck went to Kevin Shattenkirk at the point, who whistled a head-high shot towards the net. Backes ducked, but still got his stick up in the air to expertly batted it down and in.
That's not a play everyone in this league can make, but that's not the only reason it impressed St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock.
“First of all, he’s a baseball player, [so his] hand-eye coordination is a little bit different than other people,” Hitchcock said the day after his Blues knocked off the Sharks 2-1 in the opener. “He’'s good at it. As he said to us, it’s like taking batting practice. That’s what he did as a kid. He was obviously a good ballplayer. He feels that the more he does that, the more confident he is.
“I think the other thing [is]...I haven’t coached many players that hang in there on the shot. Most of them jump out of the way and try to put the stick in there. You look at the goal he scored [Sunday]. He hung in there and was ready to absorb [Shattenkirk’s] shot. If it would have hit him, it would have hit him. He's a very unique player that way.
”You think those are flukes, but they’re not. He just gets wood on a lot of pucks. He had two more tips yesterday that almost went in, too, so... yeah, he's good at it.”
Hitchcock also had kind words for Jaden Schwartz. The winger finally is starting to look healthy after missing half the year with an ankle injury.
“He was playing at 70% for most of the season,” Hitchcock said. “It started to come around the last five games.
“He uses his speed as a checking mechanism, which puts a lot of pressure on people. And you feel like you’re never out of a contest because he can really control the game by his tenacity. When he can arrive and get there quickly and create turnovers, it’s very effective for us. So when we feel like a line needs a boost, we put him there. Or when we feel like a line’s getting stalled out, we put him there. We move him around a lot. Like [Sunday] night, he played with three different lines.”
While his versatility is a virtue, Hitchcock wants Schwartz to make himself more effective by electing to shoot the puck more often.
“Since the day he came here in training camp, he's deferred,” the coach said. “He’s always passed off to somebody. Now he’s starting to shoot the puck. He has the second best shot on the team [after Vladimir Tarasenko, presumably], but we never see it. The last couple years, really last year in the playoffs and then this year, we started to see the shot.
“I think at the end of the day, he's going to have to become multi-dimensional, he's going to have to have that as a weapon, or people will know he's a passer only. He still does it. He did it again [Sunday] on two-on-ones, odd-man rushes. He’s always a passer. We’re always trying to get him to shoot as much as he can.”