Thursday, May 26, 2016

Emotional Backes takes playoff loss hard

Captain shared emotions of teammates after 
Blues came close to playing for Stanley Cup

ST. LOUIS -- His season just ended, emotions still raw, the freshness and suddenness of a season over still painful, Blues captain David Backes was surrounded by a throng of media one final time.

He wasn't expected to speak after the Blues' season came to an end in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, 5-2 against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center, but Backes requested to speak to the media.

That normally doesn't happen. He must have had something important to say.

It wasn't only important. It was powerful. It was heartfelt.

But this epitomizes who the man wearing the 'C' on the Blues sweater since 2011 is. 
Captain David Backes gave an emotional interview after the Blues were
eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference
Final at San Jose on Wednesday.

Captains are supposed to be impenetrable, immune to emotion, able to be front and center through good and bad. Put on the Superman cape and show the resiliency. 

But Backes, on this night, was human. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and through tears that could not be helped.

Being so close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final hurt Backes and the Blues deeply. He wasn't about to hide his feelings.

"The stop is pretty sudden, and the flood of emotions of obviously disappointment but also a level of pride and how proud we are of the group in there," Backes said long after his teammates vacated the locker room. "There's a few guys held together by tape and a few guys who have sacrificed the time to get to this point. There's a lot to be proud of but when you put all your will and all your being into something and you get so close you can taste and then not get a job done, there's definitely dissatisfaction at the moment that is tough to put into words. 

"There's a group of guys in there that bound together and defeated two really good teams (Chicago and Dallas) and played a third really good team and didn't find a way to win this one. It's just a cornucopia of emotions right now and it's tough to put into a sentence and describe for you. You sit here and say what could be with two more wins and a Stanley Cup final and a group that I think did a heck of a job and put a lot into this and is right there. Damn, two more wins and you're playing for that ultimate prize."

Damn, two more wins ... the perfect description of just how hard it is to win arguably the hardest trophy in sport. But this was a captain in the midst of pouring his heart out in a way he has never done before, a leader of a group that bonded together like no other during his tenure with the Blues.

Then came the perfect example of the Blues' mantra of us against the world.

Backes was physically wounded. He was injured in Game 4 and there was serious question whether he'd be able to play in Game 5. Then came Steve Ott, who made the ultimate sacrifice and displayed the true character of a team player.

Ott was projected to be the player to enter the lineup if Backes was unable to go, but he sacrificed his time and spot in the lineup to do everything possible to get the captain out there.

Here's a guy that overcame an injury like to no other player, a completely torn hamstring that needed Ott to go through the most excruciating rehab when doctors told him he'd be done for the season after reattaching the muscle. But he found the will and a way to get back to give coach Ken Hitchcock an option in the playoffs.

"He'll kill me for telling you this story, but Game 5, I’m not feeling well. Steve Ott brings me something to help me feel better," Backes said as he's breaking down in tears, barely getting the words out. "Knowing that he’s the guy coming out of the lineup if I can play. That’s pretty selfless, and that’s the kind of guys we have in here. Just stories like that with guys blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies, it's tough to swallow, but you know that the heart's in here, the ability’s in there. We just came up short.

"You see a lot of true character of your guys when they’re tested, binding together like we did against a heck of a Chicago team, and it gets to a Game 7 and we come out of there, play a high-flying Dallas team, it goes to a Game 7 and we come out of there."

That something turned out to be a biomat, or an infrared heating mat that Ott has used to help with his injuries. But this is the Blues' captain. Just appreciate the gesture and move on. He's not supposed to cry. 

"First time probably in 12 years? Eleven Years? My last game in college, maybe," Backes said.

There was a sense that the Blues, playing in their first conference final since 2001, could reach their first Cup final since 1970, the third year of the franchise's existence but there would be none.

The Sharks advanced to their first Cup final in franchise history (spanning 25 seasons) and the Blues are left wondering where it went wrong when the final hurdle was so close, they could reach out and grab it.

"I think the suddenness of it and you're in a Game 6 and a building you won your last game in and you know that with the right effort, we can tilt the scales in our favor," Backes said. "For whatever reason, we're not able to do that. We're not taking anything away from that team, that's a heck of a team that's taken their game to a whole other level and played a really good series, but when we play our game the way that we can play it for the full game, it gives anybody fits. We showed our high-water mark in a Game 4. We just didn't get back there for a full 60 minutes in (Games) 5 or 6. We played a heck of a series and they got the job done, we didn't, they're moving on to try for a Cup and we're here."

Backes was only a piece of a team that was embraced by a city on the cusp of euphoria. The Blues hadn't been this close to reaching the Cup final since 1986. But the leader was representing his team, engulfed with the agony of being so close, yet so far away in the end.

"It was fantastic. The people of St. Louis, the fans. ... Everyone that pulled together and the city and the support that we see when we start second round and third round, it stings right now," Backes said. "When you see all those things come together and you say, 'You know what, this is something that ... six more wins and we’re having parades on Market Street and we did what we set out to do.' Right now, we didn't get a job done, but you see the talent and the caliber of guys we have in there. That we can dominate the best teams in the league when we put our game out there. Just not enough.

"Your emotion's on your sleeve. You invest so much in an 82-game season, and 20 games in the playoffs, everything you've worked for those 102 games plus some exhibition before. Had the meetings, learned the lessons, done all the hard stuff. Now you can taste that final series within your reach and you come up a little short. That brings the emotions out in a hurry."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Captains David Backes of the Blues (42) and Joe Pavelski of the
Sharks shake hands after Game 6 of the Western Conference Final.

Backes, a pending unrestricted free agent who is free to wheel and deal on July 1, has known the Blue Note his entire 10-year career. But when the emotional scars of this playoff loss heal and he needs to turn his attentions on perhaps one last big contract, Backes will be faced with the ultimate choice: finish a career with the Blues that's included 727 regular season games, 206 career goals, 254 career assists, 49 playoff games, 12 goals, 15 assists including his best playoff yet with seven goals and seven assists in 20 games this season, or begin a new chapter somewhere else.

If it comes to that, Backes' tears after Game 6 could pale in comparison if he were faced with leaving the Gateway City. He was the last of the players to leave the room that once again went silent once he departed, and with it, went an uncertain future. 

"I know that July 1st isn't that far away because we played until May 25th, but that's going to be a little bit before I get to those sorts of thoughts," Backes said. "We're just kind of heartbroken right now in that room and that's the consensus."

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