THN in Sochi: David Backes serves as USA’s designated hitter

As he is in the NHL, David Backes has been a physical force for Team USA in these Olympics. When the puck drops for the semifinal on Friday, expect Backes to be seeing a lot of Sidney Crosby and his linemates.

SOCHI – Watching David Backes speak about the upcoming semifinal matchup between Canada and USA reminded me of Clubber Lang in Rocky III when he was asked for his for his prediction for the fight. “Prediction?” he said, then looked directly and menacingly into the camera. “Pain.”

As he often is in the NHL, Backes has been a nasty, nasty piece of work in these Olympics. This is a guy who married the girl he has been friends with since public school and will fly halfway across the country to save an orphaned puppy, but don’t go into the corner with him or let him catch you along the boards. He and linemates Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan have been punishing opponents throughout the tournament, but Backes has been particularly surly.

That won’t change now that the games are crucial. Logic would dictate that Sidney Crosby might want to prepare for seeing a lot of Backes, but if another line gets going for Canada, there’s a good chance Backes will match up against that one to teach it a thing or two. As the home team, the Americans have the last change and have the luxury of matching lines more than the Canadians do. Regardless of into whose eyes Backes will be staring, he and his linemates intend to continue to bring their physical presence.

“Would that be a secret if that was our game plan?” Backes said. “That’s no secret to anyone. We’re physical guys. We like to grind and bump and we’ve had to do that against a ton of skill in this tournament and we’re going to have to continue to do that.”

The Crosby line, if it stays intact with Chris Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron, gives up on average 10 pounds per player to the Backes line. That might be reason enough for Canadian coach Mike Babcock to move Bergeron back to center to make up for the loss of John Tavares and slide a player such as Jeff Carter onto that line. The Backes line has drawn the shutdown assignment for most of the tournament, with the Pittsburgh Penguins tandem of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin taking care of things on the back end, with the twin Ryans, Suter and McDonagh, also drawing spot duty in that role.

READ ALSO:  Jeff Carter finally speaks, says he's looking forward to joining Blue Jackets

American coach Dan Bylsma said Canada has so much depth on all four lines – even though it has not emerged in the form of offense – that Backes and his linemates will have to adjust to different scenarios. After all, the Crosby line has not produced a single goal to this point in the tournament and might not be Canada’s biggest threat. Bylsma said if it were a classic NHL game, you’d expect the Backes line to be going nose-to-nose with Crosby and his linemates.

But in the Americans’ quarterfinal against the Czechs, Bylsma noticed that Ryan Kesler was having an outstanding game in the faceoff circle, so he sent Kesler out to take the important draws.

“In this game with the depth of the Canadians from top to bottom in their four lines, I don’t think you can go with a straight matchup of one guy against one guy,” Bylsma said. “We’re certainly going to have David Backes out there in key situations and some of those will be against Sidney Crosby and we’re going to have Ryan Suter out there as much as we can possibly get him out there. But just to think of matching up against Sidney Crosby, you’d be missing another nine forwards out there and that may be the difference in the game.”

As he did in 2010 in Vancouver, the well-spoken Backes has become a go-to player on the American team for insights. Backes and his wife Kelly launched Athletes for Animals last November in hopes of using his high profile to promote responsible pet ownership and advocate for homeless animals. There are plenty of those in Sochi. Dogs can constantly be seen roaming the streets here and thousands of others were ordered killed before the Olympics. It’s not a problem exclusive to Russia, but it still breaks Backes’ heart.

“It’s sub-optimal,” Backes said. “I don’t think anyone loves stray animals running around. If they all had forever homes, we’d all have a better society because of it. Nobody wants to see them suffering or dying on the streets.”

Making humans, particularly those wearing skates and opposing sweaters, suffer a little? Well, for Backes, that’s a different story.