Showdown: Benn vs. Backes

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Probably fair to say that the respective captains of the St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars, David Backes and Jamie Benn, imagined that Friday's late-season clash of division foes would have brought a different sense of urgency at the start of the season.

The Blues finished second in the Central a year ago, while the plucky Stars defied many observers by finishing fifth in the division and then giving the Pacific Division-champion Anaheim Ducks all they could handle in a six-game first-round series that was ultimately won by the Ducks.

This season, the expectations were high for both clubs and there was a widespread expectation that both would be playoff-bound, with the Blues a good bet to finish atop the Central.

Well, it hasn't exactly worked out that way, as the Stars are only mathematically alive for a playoff berth after a rocky start and injuries to key personnel, including scoring star Tyler Seguin, Benn's frequent linemate.

The Blues were surging to a division title and a shot at home ice throughout the playoffs before a recent slump has seen them settle back into second place, and now home-ice advantage even in the first round of the playoffs is in question.

So, if Friday's tilt lacks playoff urgency, it is not without its compelling storylines as far as the two men who wear the captain's "C" are concerned.

Captain, bring me a Cup: A year ago, the buzz around the Blues was palpable after GM Doug Armstrong had acquired former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline. The Blues looked, on paper, to be built for a long playoff run. Fans who have been waiting for a championship since the team's inception in 1967 were primed for glory.

Then, in six games, it was over.

Miller wasn't very good, but more problematic was the loss of Backes in the middle part of the series after a dirty hit from Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook concussed the Blues captain in Game 2 of the series. Seabrook was suspended for three games but the impact on Backes and the Blues was undeniable. The team, already challenged with injuries to Vladimir Tarasenko and T.J. Oshie, managed just six goals as it lost four straight after taking a 2-0 series lead. Backes ended up playing in four games and collecting just one assist. Former Blues tough guy Kelly Chase, a longtime Blues and national analyst, said he thinks if Backes had played in even one more game, the Blues would have won the series.

This season, the dynamics with the Blues are different, notwithstanding their current sideways slide. Paul Stastny was brought in to add depth down the middle and he, along with the emergence of a dynamic second scoring line of Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz, has taken some of the offensive pressure off Backes, who has historically shouldered a heavy offensive burden on the defensive-minded Blues.

The deeper offensive lineup hasn't dulled Backes' production, as he is second on the team with 25 goals as of Thursday, his fourth straight full season with at least 24 goals, and leads the team with nine power-play markers. But, said Chase, the lighter load also means the stakes have been upped for Backes, just as they have for the entire team.

"I think what it does is that it eliminates excuses as well," Chase told ESPN.com.

Backes was named captain in 2011 and has twice been named to the U.S. Olympic team, earning a silver medal in 2010. He is now at the stage at which he is counted on to lead by example in the same way Jonathan Toews is counted on to lead the Blackhawks or Sidney Crosby is counted on to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins. And if results aren't there, it's to the captain that people will turn.

"Your captain has to outplay the other captain. It's on his shoulders as captain," Chase said.

Backes understands that, he said.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of internal pressure to be successful," Chase said. "This thing only goes as far as he wants it to go. This has to be the season where he's a difference-maker. That's really the long and the short of it."

Captain, bring me a future: On a most basic level, the Stars need to beat the Blues to keep the math at bay in terms of getting into the playoffs. But logic suggests that the playoff ship sailed during a grisly first half of the season. What is most illuminating about the Stars and, by natural extension, the leadership being displayed by Benn, is that the team did not fold, did not simply limp into the shadows. Instead, the team has played its best hockey of the season over the past month or so.

Benn has been at the forefront of that never-say-die attitude, tied for the league lead in points since the All-Star break, as of Thursday. That kind of performance is not lost on a marketplace that got a taste of the playoffs this past spring but hasn't fully returned to embrace the team after some lean years.

Veteran NHLer Bob Bassen played for three years in Dallas when the Stars were a Western Conference force in the 1990s. He was an assistant coach for a couple of years in Utah in the American Hockey League after he retired and then returned to Dallas, where he's now the head of the Stars' alumni association. He knows that fans have taken note of the team's strong play late in the season.

"The fans don't want a quitter, and this team has not quit," Bassen told ESPN.com.

There has always been a kind of frontier connection between the Stars' teams and their fan base. They like players who are fearless and fearsome. Bassen recalled Derian Hatcher, who was captain during his days in Dallas, and sees some parallels to Benn.

"He was a warrior on the ice, and he was so easy to follow," Bassen recalled of Hatcher. He sees that in Benn.

"Jamie, he'll battle. He'll fight. And he's got tremendous skill to go along with that," Bassen said. "Jamie's kind of a north-south player. He'll go right through a defenseman and take it to the net."

As for growing into the captaincy, something Benn assumed at the start of last season, that too has been evident. When Seguin went down with a knee injury, one might have expected that Benn's production would disappear, but that didn't happen. Since Dec. 31, Benn hasn't gone more than two games without registering at least a point. Since Feb. 13, when Seguin, Patrick Eaves and Ales Hemsky all exited the lineup with injury, Benn is tied for fourth in the league with 24 points in 22 games. Since Seguin returned, Benn has continued his impressive production, with 13 points in 12 games.

In some ways, Bassen hypothesized, learning to play without Seguin for a time perhaps even helped Benn's evolution.

"It's almost like Jamie took it upon himself" to not let Seguin's loss diminish his production, Bassen said. "He almost played better without Tyler for a while."

Prediction: The Blues have to pull out of their funk at some point, right? Look for them to do so Friday night, in spite of Benn's best efforts.