A month ago, it would have been impossible to envision Niklas Backstrom playing a pivotal role in determining whether the Wild makes the playoffs.
As the team’s third goaltender, Backstrom shared a net with backup Darcy Kuemper at practice and didn’t play a single second of any game.
But suddenly, Backstrom is not only a member of the Calgary Flames, he will lead that team from the visitors’ tunnel wearing a “Flaming C” on his chest to start Thursday’s game at Xcel Energy Center. In fact, the 38-year-old could wind up starting against his former team in two of its final eight games, because Calgary returns to Minnesota for each team’s regular-season finale April 9.
The Wild is one point up on Colorado for the last Western Conference playoff spot, so Backstrom’s play either will put a dent in the Wild’s playoff chances or provide one giant boost.
“It’s definitely weird,” said Backstrom, who arrived in the Twin Cities late Monday and has been at his Edina home with his wife and two children.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has played against old pals such as Nick Schultz and Brian Rolston, but never a goalie and never in such a critical game.
“I’m sure it’ll be an emotional night for him,” Koivu said. “It’s going to be different and not like a usual night. We need those points, and I’m sure he’s going to want to play well.”
Backstrom returned to the St. Paul arena that is so close to his heart Wednesday. Not only did he practice on the familiar sheet of ice with the Flames, he got to watch the end of the Wild’s practice from the visitors’ bench and reunite with smiling old teammates and friends.
Few Wild players have been as respected as Backstrom, who holds team records with 409 games, 391 starts, 194 wins and 28 shutouts. Despite his limbo status with the team this season, there never was a day when he wasn’t the first player on the ice and last off.
That’s why when the Wild acknowledges Backstrom during a first-period video tribute Thursday, Koivu hopes fans give him one final appreciative ovation.
“He earned it,” Koivu said. “Look at the years and the games and his effort and his professionalism and his numbers, the stuff that goes on behind closed doors and in practices and the type of person he is, he deserves a warm welcome back.”
Year between games
Backstrom, who made his NHL debut in 2006-07, had to wonder if he ever would play again. But traded in the David Jones deal Feb. 29, Backstrom played his first game since Jan. 13, 2015 — the game before the Devan Dubnyk era began in Minnesota — Sunday in Montreal. Inside one of his favorite arenas because it’s where he played in an All-Star Game in 2009, Backstrom made 21 saves for his first victory in 462 days.
Afterward, his new teammates grabbed the game puck for Backstrom as a keepsake.
“It was a really nice gesture,” Backstrom said. “This has been a big change getting to know a new staff, a new city, a different organization, new teammates. But it’s amazing the way they’ve made me feel welcome.
“The guys in front of me played great and helped me. It was just fun to enjoy playing again. It’s been a long road, and maybe it was just like a small reward for all the work, all the hours to hopefully be able to play again.”
The Wild wanted to buy Backstrom out of his three-year, $10.25 million contract the past two summers, but injuries prevented that both years.
The Wild last summer insinuated it didn’t know the extent of an elbow injury that required offseason surgery, but Backstrom has maintained there’s plenty of evidence he never kept the injury a secret.
‘It’s a business’
Despite not playing, Backstrom stayed classy. He was one of the first Wild players to text Mike Yeo when he was fired and tried not to be a distraction by avoiding media requests even when it was clear he was unhappy.
“At the end of the day, my job is to help the team and be ready if they need me,” he said. “It’s hockey. It’s a business, a lot of things happen and everybody had different feelings on different things. But when I look back, I got into this league at 28. I would never have gotten a chance to play in the NHL without the Wild.
“So I don’t think I could ever have anything bad to say because they gave me a chance and believed in me. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Now, he’ll get to play in front of Wild fans at least one final time.
“It’s going to be weird, especially skating out the other end,” Backstrom said. “But it’s going to be special. That rink means a lot to me. This has been a special place for me and my family for 10 years. The fans, they always treated me so good. The Cities here, the team, organization, the fans, this is home. Just a special place.”
Beyond this year, Backstrom doesn’t know if the future entails staying in the NHL, returning to play in Europe or retiring.
“I’m just trying to take out of the NHL everything I can and have fun,” Backstrom said. “The bad thing is there’s a couple weeks left in our season, so I’m just trying to enjoy every day. Then I’ll sit down and see what happens. I don’t want to think too far ahead and make too many plans. It’s just about trying to enjoy the moment here now.”