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
Were it not for the Wild taking a chance on him, Backstrom might never have known what he could do in the NHL. He was raised in a hockey culture famous for valuing and nurturing goaltenders and is the third generation of his family to play the position. Undrafted by the NHL, Backstrom said he felt fulfilled in Finland’s Elite League — where he played for 10 years — and with his role on his country’s national teams.
As he led Karpat Oulu to consecutive Elite League championships, he caught the attention of Matti Vaisonen, the Wild’s European scout. On Vaisonen’s recommendation, the Wild signed Backstrom to a one-year deal as a 28-year-old free agent before the 2006-07 season.
He was expected to be the third goaltender behind Manny Fernandez and Harding. When Harding was injured in the final exhibition game, Backstrom remained in Minnesota as the backup to Fernandez, and his professional demeanor and appetite for practice made an immediate impression.
After watching him earn two victories in relief of Fernandez, coach Jacques Lemaire gave Backstrom his first start six weeks into the season. When Fernandez sprained a knee in January, Backstrom took over as the starter and began an extraordinary run. He finished that season 23-8-6 and led the NHL in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929).
“He had to adjust to the pace of the play and the smaller ice sheet,” Mason said. “But the mental side of the game, he was already there. And he was a workhorse.”
By 2009, Backstrom’s play had earned him a place in the NHL All-Star Game. He also had solidified the disciplined, serious reputation he maintains to this day.
Relying on his routine
Backstrom usually is the first player on the ice and the last off. Though he speaks four languages — Finnish, English, Swedish and German — he says little. Always conscientious about proper nutrition and rest, he has become more so with age, which he said has kept him healthier.
His gameday routine also remains unchanged. Backstrom makes his well-known slow jog through the dim lower level of Xcel Energy Center about two hours before, to warm up his body and focus his mind. He stretches, spins on an exercise bike, stretches again and meets with Mason to review the opponent’s offense. In seven years, Mason said, that has never wavered.
Backstrom said he picked up that routine from watching other players. Now the Wild’s young goalies are learning it from him, something Yeo is pleased to see. At this time of year, the coach said, preparation is critical — and to have the goaltender modeling that behavior for others sets a tone that serves the Wild well, both now and in the future.
“You always hear you’re supposed to have the same approach every day and be even-keeled,” said goalie Darcy Kuemper, who has split time this season between the Wild and its minor league affiliate in Houston. “But to see that firsthand is something else. Nik is so consistent, no matter what the situation is. And you see the benefits of having that level of commitment.”
During the summer, Backstrom said, he gives himself a bit of a break. While he remains diligent about his diet and workouts, he said it is important to refresh his mind. His girlfriend, Heidi, and 17-month-old son, Benjamin, help him relax and recharge at their home in Espoo, Finland, a suburb of Helsinki.
According to Mason, remaining healthy this year has helped Backstrom stay in a groove. “He hasn’t had to hit the restart button like he did the past few years, when he was nicked up,” Mason said of Backstrom, who has had hip, back and groin injuries in recent seasons. “He’s played his best for us when he’s been in the net a lot. This year, he’s been on automatic pilot.”
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said last month that he would wait until after the season to talk to Backstrom about a new contract. The goalie said he believes in the Wild’s future and would like to stay.
That conversation is not at the front of his mind at the moment. After waiting five years to get back to the playoffs, Backstrom wants to keep his busy season — and its rituals — going for as long as possible.
“I’m 35 now, but I feel the same as I did when I was 25,” he said. “You only have so many chances to fight for the Cup. I want to play as much as I can and enjoy every day.”