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BIG MAC ATTACK

Flames standout centre Mikael Backlund does excellent job in head-to-head matchup with Avs star Nathan MacKinnon

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Around this time two years ago, the 'Mikael Selke' campaign was in full swing.

A 28-year-old Backlund - one of the Flames top forwards, a front-line penalty-killer, and versatile, shut-down beast - had gone from relative unknown to platinum status as one of the game's defensive elite.

That was then.

Now older, wiser, and on the heels of a near-perfect playoff opener in 2019?

"If anything, he's even better and more well-rounded now," said fellow '3M' compatriot and Game 1 hero, Matthew Tkachuk. "Insane, right?

"He's such a good player.

"Last night, that was everything that makes Backs a world-class player. He played a ton, won a bunch of big draws, had that big goal that kind of took the life out of them, and gave us a ton of momentum going into the last couple of minutes.

"He does it all."

 

 

Maybe it was the goal that sealed it.

Or maybe the 23-plus minutes he played to lead all forwards, the game-high seven shots, or the splendid, 65% success rate he enjoyed in the faceoff circle.

Whatever the stat, Backlund's fingerprints were all over Thursday's dominant Game 1 win, using everything in his toolbox to quell the efforts of the Avs' big unit, led by their rhythmic, 99-point commander, Nathan MacKinnon.

The speedy centre, understandably, got a few looks with five shots on 12 attempts, but of those at even strength, only one came from a quality scoring location.

He also gave the puck away twice and won only 24% of his draws - including a team-worst 8.3% (1-11), 5-on-5.

Those are very un-MacKinnon-like numbers. But maybe - just maybe - a theme has developed early in the series.

"He's so shifty and so fast," Backlund said of MacKinnon. "He can create anything out of nothing, so you've got to be right on top of him, all the time. I think a big factor is a really good back-check and re-load. Have a good, high F3 and stay above those guys. I'm sure it's frustrating for them to play when they always have guys in their face.

"That's what we've got to keep doing."

With, Backlund reminds, an even higher dose of intensity. Because at this early stage of the playoffs, it's only going to get harder.

While Tkachuk's masterful, drill-deep-under-the-skin game was on full display, Andrew Mangiapane scored one of the prettiest goals all year with an incredible solo effort, and Mike Smith and his leather-wrapped left hand produced one of his finest performances in some time, it was Backlund's work behind the scenes that kept the Avs' difference-makers at bay.

A tall task.

But, certainly, a job the talented, two-way pivot lives for.

He's been training for it his whole career.

"Him and (Connor) McDavid are pretty similar players in that they're the Top 3 fastest guys in the league, and especially with how shifty they are off the rush," Backlund said. "You watch him and it's pretty impressive how he winds up and takes it up the middle. You've got to make sure you cut them off and make sure they can't gain speed, as best you can. It's different than defending a lot of guys, honestly.

"Just stay on top of him. Stay high, keep a tight gap. That's the way to do it. There's no secret to it and they know it, we know it, so we've got to keep doing it."

 

 

And as the saying goes, the best defence is a good offence. When the buzzer sounded, MacKinnon and Co. surrendered more than half of the even-strength offence when they were on the ice.

Another testament to the completeness of No. 11's game, with one of the NHL's most prolific goal-scorers winding it up on the other side.

"It gets him on the radar, for sure," said head coach Bill Peters when asked where the perpetually underrated Backlund stacks up among the elite. "That's a real tough matchup.

"He's been a plus player for us all year and the job he did last night was very good.

"And we'll need it again."

Keep it up and the Flames could eradicate what hope the Avs have.

The big storyline entering the series revolved around Colorado's Big 3 of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.

Beyond that, the Avalanche don't have near the depth the Flames do.

And if the big guns aren't firing…

"I think they tried to balance things out a little bit by putting Rantanen on a different line, and putting (Alexander) Kerfoot up with MacKinnon and Landeskog," Backlund reasoned. "Kerfoot's a good player, too, but Rantanen's on another level.

"So it gave us a bit of a different look than what we'd seen in the regular season, but that top group is still their dominant line.

"We don't necessarily look at it and say, 'Hey, if we shut these guys down, we're for sure going to win.' But it definitely puts us in a good spot.

"A really good spot.

"If we play like that again in Game 2, we're going to do some good things."

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