TORONTO — David Backes, the Bruins man without a country the last three games, found his way back to familiar terra firma here in Canada Saturday night, riding right wing on a fourth line with Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly against the Maple Leafs in Boston’s 4-3 overtime loss.
Backes, 35, played in only three of the Bruins first six games this season, leaving him in the unfamiliar backup role that he never experienced until late last season.
“It’s more mental, this early in the year, knowing that I was really ready for the season,” said Backes, noting the challenge of staying ready to pop in the lineup on an as-needed basis. “To hit those speed bumps, or get the ‘pause’ button pushed . . . and want to just kind of get into a rhythm and find some linemates, get that consistency, that chemistry . . . that’s eased a bit by winning, certainly, you want your team to win first and foremost, and then you want to be a part of it and contribute to those wins.”
Ideally, said Backes, he would return here and help provide some offense. In the first two-plus weeks of the season, the Bruins were virtually bereft of any secondary scoring — as defined by goals scored by anyone not named Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, or David Pastrnak (a combined 14 goals).
“We’ve been looking for more sources of offense, as everyone’s been talking about,” said Backes, with a career line of 244-307—551, “and it’s tough to do that from the ninth floor, sittin’ with you all [in the press box].”
Backes was back on the beat mainly because of mounting injuries among Boston forwards. No. 2 center David Krejci missed his third game of the season, his second since taking a whack from Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf on Monday, and Joakim Nordstrom sat out his fourth game, albeit his first since being sidelined for the opening three games of the new season due to an injury that carried over from the Stanley Cup Final round vs. St. Louis.
Coach Bruce Cassidy opted to go with Backes rather than summon a winger, possibly Anders Bjork, from AHL Providence. Following the morning workout, Cassidy, though not praising Backes, made a point of saying he has not been disappointed by the veteran’s efforts thus far in the early going.
Headed into the night’s opening faceoff here at Scotiabank Arena, Backes was still looking for his first point, but he did land eight shots on net in his prior three games. Only Bergeron and Pastrnak could boast a better shots-per-game average. Goals and assists count the most, but shots matter.
“He’s actually played well,” said Cassidy. “We’ve been trying to get a look at where [Brett] Ritchie fits — he’s a new addition and they are similar players. So is Wagner and we like what Wagner does with Kuraly and [Nordstrom]. They’re a really good checking line. So he got pushed out more by maybe some of the other guys, what they bring, and less about what he’s doing. Which isn’t always fair, but that’s the way we are doing it now, early on.”
To his credit, noted Cassidy, Backes has maintained a pro’s demeanor, composure that others with his level of veteran status might have been challenged to keep.
“David likes feedback, and I talk to him, but there’s only so many times you can tell him the same thing,” said Cassidy. “And I’ve been honest with him — that doesn’t mean he has to like it. But I respect the fact that he’s a good pro and his body language is excellent — he’s not dragging it around the room. He’s a good leader for us that way.”
NHL game No. 932 had Backes sizing how his game fit with his linemates and calculating how they might best put up some of that elusive secondary scoring. Left unsaid: A goal or assist next to his name might lead to more work Tuesday when the Leafs are in Boston.
“If I can help out in any way,” mused Backes, “maybe hold on to pucks, get some riff-raff going in front [of the net] . . . I don’t think it’s necessarily a line that’s going to go boards to boards and back through the seam. But if we can get pucks to the net, crash it, find some loose change, some garbage, that’s probably our best opportunity. The basics that make that line effective is certainly at the top of our minds.”
In the end, the proud veteran winger did not make a case to be back in the lineup Tuesday night when the Leafs come to Boston for a rematch. He landed but one shot on net and finished -2 in only 6:42 of ice time (lowest on the team).
If both Krecji and Nordstrom are unable to suit up Tuesday, it’s possible the Bruins will keep Backes on the sideline and summon a forward (Bjork?) from AHL Providence.
Backes also picked up Boston’s only penalty of the night, crashing into the Toronto goalkeeper, Fred Andersen, albeit with a shove from the Leafs Martin Marincin.
A better start
The Leafs, 4-3-1 in their first eight games, were without prized center John Tavares, the veteran offensive lynchpin recently suffering a broken finger that will keep him hors de combat for a minimum two weeks.
The loss of Tavares had coach Mike Babcock lead with a No. 1 line centered by Auston Matthews and flanked by Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander.
The Leafs were without Nylander for October and November last season, the talented winger finally signing a contract extension just hours before the Dec. 1 deadline. Nylander had a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, but was a more perky 2-3—5 in his first eight games prior to facing the Bruins.
“Like all of us, we all want more,” said Babcock, asked to appraise Nylander’s performance over the first two weeks. “Willie would tell you he is feeling way better than he was at this time last year . . . he was on some beach in Sweden at this time last year. So this is a real step in the right direction, I’d say.”
It’s about communication
Bergeron, on whether he would feel lost in a foreign country if he reported to work Saturday only to learn that he would center a line without Marchand (LW) and Pastrnak (RW).
“On my left side, probably,” said Bergeron, who has had Marchand riding in that spot for nearly a decade. “It’s been going on for a while. I think it’s one of those things, no matter who you are playing with, you are trying to find ways to communicate and get used to playing with them.
“It might take a little bit of time, but that being said, I think that’s how you create chemistry, by talking and being excited about doing different plays and going on the ice and competing. I think that’s never going to change, really. And again, we have so many good players on this team, I don’t think it would really matter.”
Video not a habit
Unlike most hitters in Major League Baseball, Pastrnak does not check out replay video of games in which he has scored goals. Not even after posting a career-high four-spot on Monday vs. the Ducks.
Early on in his career, said Pastrnak, he made a practice of watching replays of his strikes, but he got away from the habit.
“I used to watch shifts after every game,” said Pastrnak, who entered the night with eight goals, only one strike behind league-leader James Neal (Edmonton). “I stopped doing that, I don’t know why.”
Would it not be fun to go back and look at those four on Monday? It’s quite possible he’ll never score four again in one game.
Taking their shot
“Well, sometimes, if you’ve scored on a power play, we’ll have a PP meeting and you’ll see them,” he said. “It’s nice. Especially these days, hockey is everywhere, on TV in every locker room. Especially in Canada you can see all of it. It’s not like I am searching for it, but obviously it’s on TV.”Overall, the Bruins made 73 attempts at the Toronto net, with 46 of them landing. The Leafs squeezed off 52, 29 of them making it to Halak. Bergeron led the Boston attack with six shots, while Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Jake DeBrusk each landed five . . . Pastrnak’s ninth goal tied him for the league lead with Edmonton’s Neal.