Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Clash of the captains

Kings' Brown, Blues' Backes engaged in C-saw battle of leaders

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- If hockey were only about will, and a team exactly mirrored its captain, there might be nothing left of the Los Angeles Kings or St. Louis Blues to go on from here.

By the end of their Western Conference semifinal series, which could come as early as Sunday, there would be Kings' Dustin Brown on one side, Blues' David Backes on the other, two goaltenders, and everybody else in the infirmary.

And the goalies would only be safe if they kept their heads up.

Team USA mates two years ago in the Olympics, Brown and Backes are peas in a pod -- skilled, fast, physical, edgy, capable of seek-and-destroy hits, and with an inclination to take the shortest route to the opposition's most important players, and arrive in ill humour. Pretty much perfect playoff leaders, in other words.

"It's always better from a teammates standpoint, coaching standpoint, if (captains) have a strong identity, because that's how you want your team to play," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter sad Saturday, "and we're fortunate that we have (former Philadelphia Flyers captain) Mike Richards and Brownie both that are so close in those areas, in terms of what they bring, in terms of leadership, we're lucky like that."

And on the other side?

"Well, (Backes) is clearly an identity player, no different than the last series where we talked about Kesler and Hamhuis, to be quite honest -- we felt they were (Vancouver Canucks') identity players."

That didn't stop Brown from singling out Henrik Sedin for a seismic hit in Game 3 that didn't disable the Canucks' captain but definitely sent a message -- one of many Brown delivered in the series, on the scoresheet and off.

"I mean, you gotta try to go after guys, get them off their game, and maybe I've done that a little bit," the Kings' gritty captain said. "Guys don't like me too much just from the way that I play, but I've been able to handle that. I try to be hard on their top guys, and I don't think any team really likes that."

He seems to be particularly obstreperous around captains, and has locked horns with the six-foot-three, 225-pound Backes more than once as the Kings have built their 3-0 stranglehold, with Game 4 today at noon at Staples Center.

"Well, I think both (Sedin and Backes) are top guys, you have to try to push them out," Brown said. "Backes is a big boy, he's one of those guys you can hit 100 times, he's going to be the same David Backes we saw in Games 1-2-3.

"Sometimes it's an uphill battle with a guy like that. He's always going to show up and play, and you have to keep after him just to have an effect over the course of a series. A big body like that, with the skill he has, if you're not running into him every chance you get, he's going to be running into you."

"There's no love lost in the battle of playoffs," said Backes, "but you saw in the second period when he hits me, he goes down, he's right back up and into it and he and (Willie) Mitchell almost sent me into the bench . . . those are clean hits, they're hard plays and you can respect the hell out of a guy across from you who's playing clean but playing his butt off and playing hard."

Sutter and Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, both old-school guys who insist on stubborn, responsible territorial play, and have no time for soft players, would love this captains' contest of wills if they weren't each hoping the other's leader would go away.

"Well, they're two big guys," said Hitchcock. "Man, that hit against the bench -- that hurt ME. Cripes, you saw both guys get squished. I'm surprised both of them got up. That was a big, big-time hit."

Brown, the smaller of the two at six feet and 205 pounds, has been a major force for the Kings in the playoffs, but "it's not really much different than the impact he has at any point in the regular season," said Sutter. "I think he's a strong, fast, straight-line, finish-checks player and when he does that he's really effective.

"He's probably no different than their captain. They have an identity, and if they're doing it right then it's easy to say, 'Look, that's how Dustin does it, that's how you do it.' Or 'That's how David does it, that's how you do it.' "

From Backes's point of view, there's no choice but to man up against the Kings, who've been pushing the Blues around for long stretches in the series. We've got to find that energy and that stomach to stand up to their forwards, they've really taken it to us," he said.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2012 B2

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