ST. LOUIS -- Hockey is a game of inches. In the first period Sunday, it was a game of 1 1/4 inches to be exact, the width of a stick shaft.
The St. Louis Blues were on the power play in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. Captain David Backes was at the top of the crease as usual, moving side to side in front of San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones, blocking his vision, getting ready. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk fired from the point, and the puck struck the shaft of Backes' stick in midair and dipped past Jones, giving the Blues a 1-0 lead.
It looked lucky. Backes turned his head down and to the left as the puck arrived. Was he even looking when he made contact? And to be sure, there is always an element of luck when goals are scored on deflections. No player, no matter how skilled, deflects the puck with precision. Once the puck hits the stick, it's largely up to chance.
But getting the puck to hit your stick -- or just getting in position for the puck to hit your stick -- takes practice, deftness and toughness. That's how you make your breaks. Some players have made whole NHL careers out of it, as Tomas Holmstrom once did with the Detroit Red Wings. Others have used it as an important part of their repertoire, like Joe Pavelski now does with the Sharks.
It's a reason Backes has broken out offensively in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has seven goals and 13 points in 15 games this spring entering Game 2 on Tuesday at Scottrade Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports); he had five goals and 13 points in 29 career playoff games entering this season. Of his seven goals, three have come on deflections.
"It's definitely not luck," Shattenkirk said. "He is one of the best that I've ever played with at standing net front, being able to absorb contact and still being able to have the focus to get a piece of it."
Video: SJS@STL, Gm1: Backes opens the scoring late in 1st
The late Ted Williams once said the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball. Deflecting a puck is kind of like that, except the pitcher is moving, and you're moving, and you're holding a skinny stick instead of a thick club, and the catcher has a stick and might whack you with it, and the catcher has help from his teammates too.
Backes played baseball growing up in Minnesota and credited his background when talking to reporters recently. He said it was like facing inside pitches. The speed was similar. The danger of getting hit was similar. The reward of hanging in there was similar.
"Sometimes you've got to react, and there's a trust factor with the guy shooting the puck as well, knowing that they're going to keep it at net-high or below," Backes said.
The crossbar is four feet off the ice. You can't deflect a puck above that, or it's a high stick.
"Which means I'm going to get hit somewhere below the neck," said Backes, who is listed at 6 feet 3, 221 pounds. "You can heal from any of those."
Backes hones his craft and develops trust with his shooters every day in practice. He does drills with assistant coach Ray Bennett to refine his positioning, hand-eye coordination and touch.
"He knows how important it is to his game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He just wants to be able to feel it all the time. As he said to us, it's like batting practice. That's what he did as a kid. He was obviously a good ballplayer."
Backes learns the tendencies of teammates such as Shattenkirk, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and forward Alexander Steen. Backes had a talk with rookie defenseman Colton Parayko before he took his first shot this season, asking him to dial it back about 70 percent to start. Once they had some chemistry, then he could fire away full blast.
Teammates learn where to put the puck.
"I know if there are guys in the shooting lane, if I can get it a foot or two outside of the net, he's still able to go out there and grab those and tip them in," Shattenkirk said. "That's what he's doing good at."
When it's game time, no one has to think. Everyone can react in split-seconds.
Backes goes to the net and takes punishment from opponents who struggle to clear the crease.
Video: SJS@STL, Gm1: Backes and Thornton exchange beard tugs
"More or less he just goes there and plants himself, gets that early body position," Sharks defenseman Justin Braun said. "A lot of times, you've just got to front those pucks so it doesn't get to him. A little more difficult to move a guy like that out from in front of the net."
Backes doesn't fear getting hit, at least not enough not to do his job, and often the Blues get rewarded.
"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 [Sunday against the Sharks]. He hung in there and was ready to absorb the shot. If it would have hit him, it would have hit him."
Instead, it hit his stick shaft and went in the net. It was part sacrifice, part bunt, part home run.
"It looked like a knuckleball coming in, to be honest with you," Hitchcock said. "There's no way the goalie could have seen anything. All he saw was a number. …
"You think those are flukes, but they're not."