With every game last week, Wild players ricocheted across the emotional spectrum as they inched toward the edge of the NHL playoff cliff. Each successive test was declared the biggest of their season, perhaps even their careers, in voices that reflected desperation one day and exhilaration the next.
One locker remained a little oasis of zen, as always. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom shouldered much of the pressure in the three games that secured the Wild’s first playoff berth since 2008, but he labeled them simply as Nos. 46, 47 and 48. “It doesn’t matter who we play, or where we play, or what’s at stake,” Backstrom said. “I try to treat every game the same way. That’s what I have to do.”
Tuesday, the low-key Finn will approach Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against Chicago just as he did Game 1 of his seventh NHL season. That equanimity — undergirded by the centering power of routine — enabled him to shake off wrenching losses to Calgary and Edmonton last week and sparkle against Los Angeles and Colorado.
‘He’s a professional’
It has been a challenging season for Backstrom, 35, who is in the final months of a four-year, $24 million contract. He carried a staggering workload because of the compressed schedule and the health issues of backup Josh Harding, leading to speculation that he might be drained. Backstrom said he feels good, and Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason — who has worked with him since he signed with the Wild in 2006 — said Backstrom always has thrived when he is busy.
His methodical approach is the key, as it has been for the past 15 years of his career. For the team, it provides an undercurrent of calm and constancy in a critical position; for the organization, it creates a standard for young players learning the NHL ropes. It also inspires belief in a player whose performance will be vital to the Wild’s chances of postseason success.
“One thing this guy has proven over and over again is the way he prepares, the way he commits himself, he’s a professional,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Those are the guys you want in this situation.”
It is a situation Backstrom has coveted for the past five years, ever since he backstopped the Wild to consecutive playoff appearances in his first two NHL seasons. His affection for the Twin Cities and the franchise that discovered him at age 28 have made it all the sweeter to return to the postseason in a Wild sweater.
“The past few years were really tough,” Backstrom said. “But I didn’t want to go somewhere else and chase a [Stanley] Cup. I wanted to be part of building a team into a playoff team and then a contender. And I wished, I hoped, this would be the team.”
Entering the playoffs, Backstrom has started 27 of the past 28 games, including 15 in a row. He has played all but six games in a shortened schedule that has magnified the importance of every game while allowing few days off.
Harding’s treatment for multiple sclerosis caused him to miss most of the season, leaving no experienced backup — and, Yeo said, ramping up the pressure on Backstrom. The goalie said that adjustments to his diet, rest and recovery habits helped him handle the load and avoid injuries. But he didn’t dial back his exertion, even in practice.
“He doesn’t like taking days off,” Mason said. “It’s hard to keep him off the ice. He’s in a comfort zone, and he hasn’t really shown any wear and tear.”
Working through rough times
It has not been Backstrom’s strongest year statistically. Though he tied for the NHL lead with 24 victories, he is ranked 23rd in goals-against average (2.48) and 28th in save percentage (.909). His goals-against average is the third-highest of his NHL career, while his save percentage is the second-lowest.
Still, Backstrom has produced some highlight moments. On Saturday, he stopped 29 shots against Colorado to clinch the playoff berth, and he made a sprawling stop with 11 seconds left to preserve a crucial victory over Los Angeles on Tuesday. His steady presence in the nets and in the locker room resonates with his teammates, particularly those who have seen him over time.
“He gives us a chance to win each and every night,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “That’s huge for our confidence.”
Finding his way to NHL