Penguins-Blues offers an Olympic preview in St. Louis
Before there is Sochi, there is St. Louis.
Blues center David Backes is the man Team USA will rely on to slow Sidney Crosby when the Americans meet Team Canada in the Olympics, and a preview of the February showdown will take place Saturday when the Penguins visit St. Louis for the first time in two years.
“It's a game within the game,” Crosby said of the personal matchup. “That's what you get excited it for. He takes a lot of pride in what he does.”
So does Crosby.
Although the Penguins' captain started in strong fashion, he has gone six games without scoring a goal and his lead in the league scoring race has shrunk to one point over Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.
Recording a significant offensive night against Backes rarely comes easily for Crosby, who never has scored a goal against the Blues. Backes has played in five of Crosby's six career meetings against St. Louis.
“He's just so big, so physical, so strong on the puck,” left wing Chris Kunitz said. “Backes really leads by example for his team.”
St. Louis has emerged as a powerful Western Conference contender during the past three seasons, all of which have been played under coach Ken Hitchcock, who has a history of pestering Crosby. Hitchcock was Philadelphia's coach in 2005 when Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher knocked out Crosby's teeth in a tension-filled game in which Crosby scored a dramatic game-winner in overtime.
Following the game, Hitchcock said he “only noticed (Crosby) when he was scoring the goal,” a comment that didn't sit well with the Penguins.
They since have developed a civil relationship — Hitchcock was an assistant coach for Canada in 2010 when Crosby scored the gold medal-winning goal in the Vancouver Olympics — but there figures to be an additional sense of nastiness in this game.
Backes wouldn't have it any other way. Where elite defensive forwards like Boston's Patrice Bergeron use their skating and finesse to sometimes slow Crosby, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Backes prefers a more physical approach.
“He's just a tough guy to play against,” Bylsma said. “It's just the strength which he plays right down the middle, and it all starts in the faceoff circle.”
While Crosby acknowledged that Backes is an outstanding defensive player, he said dealing with him in St. Louis territory isn't the problem. Rather, Backes is an outstanding offensive player, having compiled 15 points in 14 games this season.
“He doesn't need to play too much defense because he's got the puck a lot,” Crosby said. “The way he can hold onto the puck is impressive.”
While Crosby hasn't scored against the Blues, he recorded a goal against a team that included Backes, who was on the bench when Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” against Team USA in 2010.
He doesn't figure to be on the bench in Sochi when Crosby's line is called. The same will be true Saturday.
“Just a really good player,” Crosby said. “It's just a different kind of matchup against him.”