Niklas Backstrom gets it, but that doesn’t make suddenly riding shotgun to Josh Harding every night any easier.
Backstrom is the only goaltender in NHL history to earn his first three victories in relief, so he has experienced life as a backup before. In fact, it took Jacques Lemaire so long to trust the then-unknown Backstrom in 2006 that he didn’t make his first career start until six weeks and 16 games into his breakout rookie season.
That was seven seasons ago, though. Backstrom has grown accustomed to being the Wild’s No. 1 goaltender ever since, the franchise’s career leader with 185 victories and 375 appearances to prove it.
But Backstrom, 35, has started five games this season. Harding relieved the injured Backstrom on Oct. 8 in Nashville and hasn’t relinquished the net yet.
Harding has started 12 of the past 15 games and leads the NHL with a 1.22 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, having allowed 16 goals in 14 games. The only two games Backstrom has started in this stretch — a home-and-home with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks — was when Harding was nursing a hamstring injury.
So whether the Wild wants to label it or not, Harding has taken the reins as the Wild’s No. 1 goaltender for the first time in his career.
“He’s playing great. It’s fun to watch,” said Backstrom, whose NHL career began because of a training camp injury to Harding in 2006. “Every guy who has been in this locker room knows what kind of long, bumpy road it has been for him. So it’s fun to see it pay off really good. We’re winning. That’s the only thing that matters.”
Yet on Saturday morning, after Backstrom found out he wasn’t starting against Carolina, he conspicuously huddled with goalie coach Bob Mason for about 20 minutes.
“It’s always tough when you’re, I don’t want to say left on the wayside, but you’re kind of in the back picture now,” Mason said. “He’s just got to kind of block out the short-term and focus on it’s a long season. He wants to play. There’s only one net, though, and he knows that.
“He’s had the net when the other guy’s sat and he’s going through it right now. He’s got to deal with it the best he can. He’s a good professional. Some guys slack, like, ‘I’m not playing, I’m not going to work very hard,’ but Backy’s out there busting his butt. He’s working hard on the ice, and working hard off the ice. That tells us he’s ready to play when we need him.”
Mason says Backstrom understands that “Hards has kicked it into gear. He’s focused, motivated and most importantly consistent. Even his off games, he’s kept that line above average.”
Mason and head coach Mike Yeo considered starting Backstrom against the offensively challenged Hurricanes. But with the Wild wanting to wrap up its road trip with a victory, the team decided to ride Harding into the Carolina game, and it paid off with a shootout victory.
The Wild wants Backstrom to get into a rhythm again, and that can only come by playing. He was sensational in a 33-save performance Oct. 26 at Chicago for his first and only victory of the season. Two nights later, though, Backstrom gave up five goals in a loss to Chicago. The Wild will need Backstrom to start one of the games next week at Montreal or Ottawa, so Yeo has indicated Backstrom will start one of the upcoming games on the three-game homestand.
“You don’t want to have any excuses, but for sure I think I feel more comfortable when I play a lot. Everyone does,” Backstrom said. “It’s a lot easier than being out a long time and then jumping in and playing Chicago, L.A., whatever. You want to play every game. On the other hand, you can’t pick or choose. You just have to be ready and find a way to be your best.”
And that’s what Yeo wants. It’s a long season. There might come a point where the Wild will need to rely on Backstrom again.
So Mason is working hard with Backstrom to get his game in order. He is 1-1-2 with a 3.42 goals-against average and .871 save percentage. Coming off offseason abdominal surgery and an in-season knee injury, Backstrom has looked slower, especially laterally.
“He’s had tough assignments — L.A., Anaheim, Chicago, Chicago. Those are challenging games for any goaltender,” Mason said. “The second Chicago game, he was bumped into 12 times. But he’s got to keep on top of his game, his speed, his lateral speed.
“When you’re sitting a lot, that stuff around the net — finding pucks through legs, getting to second pucks instead of reaching, those are things that might get loose because you’re not in game form. That’s what he’s working on now.”