David Backes could only watch from the press box as the Bruins laid an egg against the Maple Leafs in Game 1.
The moment marked another turn of events in Backes’ see-saw three-year tenure in Boston. But it wasn’t much of a surprise. The former St. Louis Blues captain tallied a career-low 20 points in 70 games in 2018-19.
Backes was an occasional visitor in the press box as a healthy scratch during the regular season. Thursday’s visit to the ninth floor at TD Garden was different, though. It signaled Backes’ first ever healthy scratch for a postseason contest dating back to his 2008-09 rookie campaign in St. Louis.
This didn’t catch the Minneapolis-born power forward by surprise either. Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins’ coaching staff hinted at this when rookie Karson Kuhlman earned a spot after a strong outing late in the regular season. There was no way Cassidy would break up the chemistry between Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, either. That left the final roster spots between Backes, Joakim Nordstrom, and Danton Heinen.
So on Monday, when he found out about the news, the prideful Backes still didn’t take the announcement well. But he settled down after a couple of days and accepted his role as the extra forward to start the series.
“It’s frustrating,” Backes admitted following Boston’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday. “I was told [about the benching] on Monday, so I had a couple of days in a dark place. But I got over it on Wednesday and I wanted to be a supportive teammate and try to help the guys prepare and get a win.”
The Bruins didn’t come prepared Thursday night. The Leafs stuck to their gameplan and exposed the Bruins’ defensive setup. Their breakouts caught the Bruins in quicksand as Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and company got behind Boston’s defense all night.
Backes saw the defensive issues from high above rinkside. He also attempted to pick up a few other tendencies along the way.
“[During the] regular season, you’re casually, as a fan, watching [the game] and maybe picking up a few things,” Backes said. “[Thursday] I was more intently watching trying to see what they’re trying to do on faceoffs, tendencies they’re doing and other things you can see from up there of ways that if I get a look that I can be effective that if I get that opportunity that I’d have a little more knowledge.”
Well, that opportunity might come Saturday in Game 2.
Jake DeBrusk took a maintenance day to heal from a battered and bruised Game 1. That bumped Johansson to DeBrusk’s second-line spot with Kuhlman and David Krejci. Heinen, the third-line right winger on Thursday, moved to left wing to pave way for Backes for Friday’s practice with Coyle centering.
Backes’ availability doesn’t hinge on DeBrusk’s health for Game 2, though. All options are on the table according to Cassidy.
“We made a decision that we had to check fast against Toronto [in Game 1],” Cassidy said. “There are two ways to look at it: we’re physical and we slow them down, or we skate with them and try to slow them down. I thought we should’ve done a better job checking and skating than we did last night. There were times that we were good with it and other times where we weren’t.
“Obviously David adds a physical piece. We’ll have an internal discussion to see where we stand, but we’ll make that decision tomorrow.”
Could Backes have helped in Game 1 instead of watching from above while chowing down on some of his favorite press box snacks? Maybe. But that’s in the past. All he can do is wait for Cassidy to call his number.
“I’m a prideful guy that’s played a long time in this league and feel that I can make an impact on games,” Backes said. “I need to be ready when called upon, but not be a distraction and make a negative impact. These are an awesome group of guys. If it’s my turn to be in the press box, then [it’s] a couple of Mike and Ike’s and a couple of snacks while I watch my teammates try to win a game.”
His 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame would give the Bruins another big body presence to try to counter Toronto’s speed. The Bruins didn’t set a physical tone at all in Game 1 aside from a couple of solid hits from rookie defenseman Connor Clifton.
All 16 postseason teams have to fight for every inch this time of year. The Bruins gave the Leafs too much space to work with. They need to fix that entering Game 2 Saturday night — with or without Backes. Otherwise, they’ll be heading north of the border carrying an 0-2 deficit.
“We didn’t get the job done in Game 1,” Backes said. “But we’ve been in see-saw series before and we’re going to need a response tomorrow in a late night game where we need to get this thing back even.”