It’s probably my last start in this league so I’m going to try to enjoy these last days here in the NHL. I’m going to try to have fun and enjoy it. It’s been a great ride, but there’s still a couple days left. - Niklas Backstrom
CALGARY, AB -- Niklas Backstrom will get his encore.
And, still sporting a practice jersey drenched in sweat that has become his calling card in his seven weeks with the Calgary Flames following practice Friday, Backstrom seemed, in the very least, at peace.
At peace in returning home for what even he suggested could be his final go-round in the National Hockey League on Saturday.
“It’s probably my last start in this league so I’m going to try to enjoy these last days here in the NHL,” the 38-year-old Backstrom said. “I’m going to try to have fun and enjoy it. It’s been a great ride, but there’s still a couple days left. You want to enjoy every day, but you want to perform as well as you can, too. When you win it’s more fun.
“I really appreciate it. I’m very proud of it. It’s been a tough year for me personally. It’s been a different year. To go out there and play an NHL game is fun, for sure.”
His numbers aren’t inspiring.
With a save percentage of .836 and a goals against average at 4.16 in three appearances with the Flames, the merit behind Backstrom’s start in Calgary’s finish to the 2015-16 season doesn’t lie in performance.
But his start isn’t designed to create a feel-good, storybook ending, either.
It is because, in coach Bob Hartley’s eyes, the start is very much earned.
Not just given.
“It could be, maybe…I don’t have a crystal ball, but it might be his last NHL game in front of his fans,” Harltey said. “He earned this.
“I love this guy. I have the utmost respect.
“We want to give him…and he earned it. I don’t want to sound like we’re doing him a favor. I like to reward guys with great attitude and guys who work relentlessly. Many times he’s the first guy on the ice for us. And many times, on the same day, he’s the last guy coming off the ice. He’s on the bike. This guy works.
“We’re giving him a chance to redeem himself.”
Versus the Minnesota Wild.
In the arena it all started for Backstrom.
Against the team where he is the career leader with 194 victories and 28 shutouts.
“I don’t know if it’s fitting,” Backstrom said. “For sure, it’s weird. I never thought about it. Sure, it’s where it all started. In that way, probably, it’s a good way. It’s still a game. You want to perform.”
Backstrom’s backstory in Minnesota is nothing short of grand.
He spent parts of 10 seasons in the Wild organization, the only NHL team he’d ever played for prior to being optioned to Calgary alongside a sixth round pick at the trade deadline.
But he hadn’t seen a second of NHL ice for Minnesota in the 12-and-a-half months prior to being swapped for forward David Jones on Feb. 29, falling out of favor while in a continued rotation of injury problems -- a torn labrum in his hip, two sports hernias and an ankle injury, on top of a torn triceps that pressed on a nerve that disturbed his fingers last summer -- plagued the aging netminder.
Refreshed with the Flames, Backstrom earned that elusive start in a win against the Montreal Canadiens on March 20. His second start came against the Wild, where he was tagged with six goals against in a 23-save performance on March 24.
His final start -- ever -- may come Saturday in Minnesota.
It’s not a coincidence.
“That’s another thing we looked at in giving him this game,” Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet said. “If it is his last game, at least he’s going to go out playing and not sitting on the bench or in the stands. He can look back in his career if it is his last game, and he finished it in net. That’s pretty special.
"It’s not with the team he started his career with, but to do it against his former team makes it extra special.”
A perfect way to pen, potentially, his final chapter.
“I think you have to earn your ice time and hope you get rewarded for the work,” Backstrom said. “It’s not about reward. Just to go out there and finish the season the right way, finish with that last game, I think it’s for everyone here in the locker room.
“You want to close it out on a good note.”