The message came across loud and clear in the form of Penguins defenseman Alain Nasreddine, who delivered a crushing body check along the boards that left the 22-year-old rookie from Minneapolis flat on the ice. Nasreddine’s message?
Welcome to the NHL, kid.
“I like to joke that Mario Lemieux got a goal in his first shift and I got rocked on my first shift,” Backes said recently. “It’s no longer these 20-year-old guys. These are men who know exactly what they’re doing. I was definitely parallel to the ice for awhile on that one.”
But when you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up. Backes did just that, got control of the puck and fed it to Doug Weight, who circled the net and pounded it past Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Like the aforementioned Lemieux, Backes recorded a point on his first shift, albeit an assist. It came just 11 seconds after being sent sprawling to the ice by Nasreddine.
“It’s the first thing I thought about,” Weight said. “I knew it was his first point. It’s always special. I’ll never forget mine.”
“I was still recovering from that hit,” Backes said, recalling the incident. “There was a lot of adrenaline running through my veins and I just went to the net. To have that happen was unbelievable.”
To be completely honest, it was an unbelievable week for Backes.
Just a few days earlier, he was down on his luck after failing to convert on several scoring chances in the minors with the Peoria Rivermen. The opportunities were there, but Backes struggled to find the back of the net. After three games in three nights, he decided to put hockey behind him and travel to Chicago to spend some time with his girlfriend, where he planned to propose.
Ironically, the week Backes planned to put hockey on the backburner turned out to be the biggest week of his hockey career. While having dinner with his girlfriend-turned-fiancée, the Blues called and told him he would be making his NHL debut the next night against Pittsburgh.
“It was icing on the cake, definitely,” Backes said. “When you think it can’t get any better, you go in there on your first shift on the ice and you end up getting your first point on a goal by Doug Weight. It was really a surreal experience and I don’t think you can write it any better than that.”
Whoever was authoring this week in Backes’ life had a storybook ending in mind. Two nights after recording his first point, Backes backhanded a shot past Kings’ goaltender Dan Cloutier at Scottrade Center to record his first NHL goal.
“When I saw the red light come on, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was one of those things where I had to watch it on TV and make sure it really happened, that I wasn’t dreaming.”
It’s a moment Backes says he will never forget. He couldn’t even if he wanted to because countless souvenirs from the game decorate the hotel room he currently lives in. He kept the puck, the stick, the official score sheet and a video copy of his first goal.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve watched the tape many times,” he said.
|In one week, Backes got engaged, scored his first points in the NHL and moved in with Keith Tkachuk (Photo by Mark Bucker). |
And why wouldn’t he? The goal capped off an incredible week for the rookie, who would also accept an invitation from Keith Tkachuk to move into his home. In less than a week, Backes was engaged, debuted in the NHL, recorded his first point, scored his first goal and was now living with a player he modeled his game after.
“(The Tkachuks) were unbelievable for me to get acquainted with the city, to help me out as far as handling myself as a professional. I’m forever indebted to them,” Backes said. “What a great experience that first week was.”
But after that first week, Backes’ play began to slip. The initial burst of energy that came with the excitement of an NHL debut had waned. Backes began to think too hard, work too fast and rush the play when he didn’t have to. After recording two points in his first two games, Backes went scoreless in the next eight contests.
Blues coach Andy Murray decided Backes would benefit by watching a game from the press box. He told Backes to sit back and digest the speed of the game, to realize he had more time than he thought.
“He’s an intelligent person and he’s able to rationalize and see the purpose in a coach’s methodology,” Murray said. “I think his intelligence and his rationale helps him be successful.”
Since then, it has become obvious why Murray compares Backes to a young Tkachuk. Since being scratched on Jan. 16, Backes has posted 21 points in 35 games, including a stretch of eight games where he had seven goals.
When Tkachuk was traded to Atlanta in February, Backes was forced to move back to a hotel. It’s almost as if when he moved out of Tkachuk’s home, he also moved out of Tkachuk’s shadow and into the spotlight.
But Backes is quick to shrug off suggestions that he could play a big role in the future of the team. He won’t take anything for granted and he surely won’t get ahead of himself.
“I’m looking forward to [the next game],” he said. “You can’t look too far into the future because all of a sudden you’re not where you want to be. It’s just everyday, trying to get better.
“I’m just a 22-year-old kid that just loves to play the game and loves the city of St. Louis, the organization and the direction it’s going. I’d love to be a part of it.”