Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom has long been accustomed to playing lots of minutes. Not this season, when injuries — and the outstanding performance of teammate Josh Harding — have limited Backstrom to three short stints of three games each.
With the Wild completing a set of back-to-back games Friday at Columbus, Backstrom is likely to get back into the net against the Blue Jackets. True to his nature, he is not stressing over his status. He said Thursday that at age 35, he has long since learned not to sweat what he can't control.
"You want to play, but you still approach every day the same way,'' said Backstrom, who is 2-3-2 this season with a goals-against average of 2.78 and save percentage of .896. "You go out there and try to improve your game and get better, then you start all over again. This is part of the game. You just have to find a way.''
Backstrom has missed nine games because of injuries and has not played in 10 others. After an exceptional performance in a shootout victory at Winnipeg on Nov. 23, he surrendered four goals on 45 shots in a pair of losses to St. Louis and Phoenix, then did not play in the next three games.
Wild coach Mike Yeo said there is a "good possibility'' that Backstrom will play Friday. "He wants the net,'' Yeo said. "But at the same time, he knows his opportunity will come, and he's going to make sure he's ready.''
After being a healthy scratch in two of the past three games, forward Justin Fontaine got back into the lineup Thursday. The rookie played left wing on the fourth line with Erik Haula and Mike Rupp.
Fontaine played in the team's first 26 games, amassing six goals and an assist. He had only one point in eight games before he was scratched, and Yeo said his game had slipped a bit. The coach thought that watching a couple of games from the press box would help refocus Fontaine on what the Wild needs from him. Thursday, Fontaine assisted on the Wild's first goal.
"He's a first-year guy, and he's still trying to carve his way into the lineup and become a regular,'' Yeo said. "But for a first-year guy, I feel like he's handled it really well. He's had different roles, he's been on the top line, he's been on the fourth line, he's been out of the lineup. The bottom line is for him his game shouldn't change.
"He's got a good idea of who he is. He's a smart player, and when he's playing well, he's very strong on the puck and he's making plays. That's what we want to see from him.''
Earning his time
Against the swift-skating Blackhawks, Yeo chose to keep Haula in the lineup. The former Gopher has played in four consecutive games since he was recalled from the Wild's AHL affiliate in Iowa a week ago and has two assists, including one on the Wild's first goal Thursday.
Yeo said Haula's speed and his ability to play wing or center both are valuable assets. "He's just a young kid,'' Yeo said. "We're still trying to figure out where he's going to fit and how he's going to fit. But he's shown he can be versatile and can have a positive effect on our lineup.''
•The Wild scratched forward Zenon Konopka and defensemen Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba.
Staff writer Michael Russo contributed to this notebook.