DENVER – For at least one night, Niklas Backstrom will get to put that No. 32 Wild sweater on again and feel part of the team.
Backstrom will only be Darcy Kuemper’s backup Monday against the Avalanche with Devan Dubnyk sidelined with a mild groin strain, but that’s still a title upgrade from third goalie/nightly healthy scratch.
The Wild’s all-time winningest goalie with 194 victories hasn’t played or dressed since training camp. His job every day has been to practice. He goes on the ice usually a half-hour before teammates with goalie coach Bob Mason and stays on long after practice.
Yes, Backstrom is paid handsomely for this extra work to the tune of $4 million after the Wild wasn’t permitted to buy him out for a second summer in a row, this time because of offseason elbow surgery. But at a minimum, his presence gives the Wild insurance now that Dubnyk’s hurt.
It’s been evident that Backstrom hasn’t been happy — he wants to be traded and he hasn’t been willing to play in Iowa (he has a no-move clause), but he has worked hard because “it’s a team sport.”
“You go out there and do something different, you’re not just hurting yourself, you’re hurting your family, your teammates,” Backstrom said Sunday, his first public comments since training camp. “I think that’s probably the thing that helps you is you have great teammates.”
The good news Sunday was that coach Mike Yeo doesn’t anticipate Dubnyk being out long. Dubnyk didn’t travel to Denver for Monday’s game, but the hope is that he can practice Thursday in Glendale, Ariz., and play one of the back-to-back games this weekend — Friday at Arizona or Saturday at San Jose.
“Obviously, where we’re at in the season, we won’t put him in the net if he’s at risk of hurting himself and being out longer,” Yeo said. “[But it’s] probably pretty good timing with the [light] week that we have right now.”
Kuemper, who shut out the Avalanche in consecutive games to start last season (including in Denver), will make his fourth start of the season Monday. He won his first game of the season Saturday against the Avalanche, making nine saves in 29 minutes of relief for the injured Dubnyk.
“I felt good in my last game [40 saves in an overtime loss to Dallas] and felt good [Saturday] and feeling good in practice,” Kuemper said. “You always want to be out there playing more than I have been, so this is a good opportunity to get in there and get some games and get some wins for the team.”
Backstrom, 37, hasn’t played a regular-season game since January. His struggles while Kuemper was injured at the time precipitated the Dubnyk trade.
In training camp, he made 28 saves and shut out Winnipeg in an overtime victory, his lone exhibition appearance.
Is he ready to play? “That’s a hard question,” Backstrom said. “You prepare yourself and do everything you can so you will be ready, and that’s what I focus on — to be ready. I felt really good in camp. If you had asked that then, I know I would be ready. Now it’s been a couple months without much practice with the team. … You just have to find a way to help your teammates.”
The Wild has allowed one goal during a three-game winning streak. It has given up 79 shots in those games and blanked the past two opponents, including Colorado for the fourth time in seven meetings.
The team is back to playing “Minnesota Wild hockey,” Yeo said, “but that said, we’re not going to look back here.”
Still, the Wild has responded to Yeo’s “rattling of the cage” before a tense practice last Monday.
“There was some poking and prodding as far as how we’re not playing the game right and you’re trying to get the message through,” Yeo said. “We have a way that we know is successful when we play it, and it’s just a matter of being mentally strong enough to make sure that we’re prepared to play it night after night.
“I was just trying to get ourselves right in the heads. … “You’re confident as a coach that you can do something like that, because we’re all in this together and all have the same goal.”