During Niklas Backstrom’s eight seasons with the Wild, the soft-spoken, intelligent goaltender has often said you can tell a team’s character by the way it battles through adversity.
The same could be said lately about Backstrom and the way he’s handling being unseated, at least temporarily, by a rookie goaltender.
It’s a long season and things have a way of changing in a hurry, but over the past two weeks, the Wild has opted most times to play the hot hand of Darcy Kuemper over a veteran who actually showed signs of rediscovering his game after a tough first half.
Backstrom turns 36 next month, is the Wild’s all-time leader in victories, has appeared in 389 games (all with Minnesota) and sits in the stall right next to Kuemper, who is 23 and has started five of seven games since Jan. 7.
“I think it would be awkward for Kuemps if Backs was not handling this with the professionalism he is,” coach Mike Yeo said after Kuemper stopped 33 shots in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime victory over Dallas.
Backstrom has been, as the bubbly Kuemper describes, “super supportive.”
In fact, Kuemper is without his car and living in the team hotel, so Backstrom sometimes chauffeurs the youngster around.
“Even [Saturday], I needed a ride to the pregame meal and he drove me. Afterward, I needed a ride back to the hotel and he drove me,” Kuemper said. “Backy’s been so awesome to me. Whenever I need advice or need to ask a question, he’s there for me.
“I think this just shows you what an unbelievable teammate he is. He’s such a team guy and has done everything to make me feel comfortable.”
If you know Backstrom, you know how much he wishes he could be playing. But he has said all the right things throughout the past few weeks and continues to work hard on and off the ice so he’s ready when the Wild next needs him.
“Backy wants the net,” Yeo said. “He’s a competitor, especially the fact that he’s won three out of four now. He’s really starting to find his game, but Kuemps is playing really well, we’re winning and he keeps supporting this kid.
“That’s the kind of selflessness that we’ve had lately. You look at the team attitude from Backy, it’s been the same from everybody. Nobody’s caring who gets the glory.”
There is little doubt Kuemper will make his fifth consecutive start Tuesday in Dallas. He’s 4-1 in the past five with a 1.36 goals-against average, .954 save percentage and one shutout.
Yeo felt scoring the first goal would be critical Saturday. Kuemper made the first seven saves of the game, including a robbery on Ray Whitney 4 minutes, 59 seconds in. Only 2:12 later, the Wild’s Erik Haula scored the game’s opening goal, the first of his career.
“He looks confident,” Yeo said of Kuemper. “You see the way he comes out of the net and he’s making some plays with the puck. We were under siege a lot of the night, but there were opportunities where he came out [of the net] and made a play and relieved some of that pressure.
“When you see that kind of confidence, your team feeds off it.”
Teammates are excited for Kuemper.
“He’s got a lot of energy. He’s a fun guy to play in front of,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “For him to step up and take [the net], it’s good. It’s good for Backy, it’s good for [Josh Harding] to have that competition.”