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Backstrom makes the most of his NHL opportunity

by Larry Wigge

In effect, Niklas Backstrom was the calming force for an unsettled team last season and a big reason for the Minnesota Wild's second-half run to the playoffs.
His name’s not Roy Hobbs, but he did just show up one day on a national stage and display athletic talent that had more than one expert wondering where he came from and what took him so long to get here?

A natural?

Niklas Backstrom just laughs at the comparison to the feel-good baseball movie, though he admits wondering for the last few years where all the NHL scouts were when he was outplaying other goaltenders from Finland. Yet Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Antero Niittymaki, Kari Lehtinen, Fredrik Norrena, Jussi Markkanen and others from his homeland were getting their chance to play on the biggest stage in the world.

Backstrom wasn’t.

"Better late than never," the 29-year-old goaltender from Helsinki said a few weeks ago after posting his 30th victory in just 46 NHL decisions (30-9-7) on Nov. 5. "I sometimes wonder if the NHL had not had a lockout a couple of years back if anyone would have ever heard of me."

Actually, no one -- not even Backstrom or the Minnesota Wild -- knew what a wonderful story was about to be written, even after the son of a junior puckstopper and grandson of a goaltender from Finland appeared in his first NHL game in the preseason last year after backup Josh Harding came up with an injury and Backstrom was pressed into duty against the St. Louis Blues.

"Honestly, I can’t sit here and tell you I knew he was going to be this good," Wild GM Doug Risebrough said. "I brought him over just as competition for Harding. I just wanted to see who was the best backup (to No. 1 goalie Manny Fernandez). If I knew what I know now, I wouldn't have signed him to a two-way, one-year deal last summer."

To their credit, Risebrough and the Wild recognized that what they saw in Backstrom in just 41 NHL games last season was more than just a fairy tale. During the summer, they signed him to a two-year contract worth $3.1 million a season.

In effect, Backstrom was the calming force for an unsettled team last season and a big reason for Wild's second-half run to the playoffs. He finished with a 23-8-6 record and was part of a goaltending trio that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL and had a goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929) that was best in the League.

"Nik is so calm in goal that he helps us all when things get a little crazy out there," forward Pavol Demitra said. "He never gets too down or too high. Always level-headed, confident. That's the type of goalie a team needs."

Backstrom became a difference maker for the Wild, a closer similar to baseball’s Mariano Rivera — never losing a third-period lead (he finished last season 17-0 in those situations) and posting only one loss after Minnesota took a lead with him in the game — going 25-1-2 last season. Since Feb. 1, when he clearly had supplanted Fernandez as Minnesota’s No. 1 netminder, Nik was 28-4-4 record through Nov. 5, with eight shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.8.

In 13 games this season, Backstrom is 8-3-1 with a 2.23 GAA and .915 save percentage.

But there’s more than statistics involved to this story.

"I grew up just like any other young kid wanting to play hockey," Backstrom laughed. "I knew I wanted to be a goalie when I was six. I’d go out to the lake and skate with the rest of the kids. I’d make a glove save like Marty Brodeur. I’d go down and sprawl to make a save like Patrick Roy. I’d come out and cut down the angle like Tor Backstrom."

Uh ... what? Who?

"My grandfather, Tor, was a goalie in the Finnish Elite League many years ago," Backstrom said. "My dad (Dick) was a junior goalie before he quit to work in the travel business. I hear my grandpa was pretty good. I never saw either of them play, but I saw pictures."

Still, the future wasn’t magically paved with a yellow brick road to Oz, er the NHL, for Nik, now was it?

Not even close.

"I was what you might call a late bloomer,” Backstrom said.

His first chance to show off his talent on the world stage was in 1998, when he was 20. But he was only the backup on Finland’s world junior team. "My first year in the Finnish Elite League ended around Christmas, when I was sent to a lower league to work on my game. Then I wound up spending a year in Sweden. It seemed like my career was headed nowhere."

At 24, he returned home to play at Oulu and found hope when goalie coach Ari Hilli switched him from a standup goalie in the style of his father and grandfather to the butterfly style that now seems so natural to him.

He rehabbed the knee injury and worked his way back into the lineup in just four months -- less than half the time doctors said it would take for him to be ready to play again.

"I played for Oulu for four years," he said, winning two championships and posting a 104-36-37 record. "I tore my MCL and ACL joints one year and had to have surgery. That was when I learned how much I loved the game. I remember sitting there one day thinking how quickly my career could be stopped by such an injury.

"I had just seen my career pick up with the style change. I was winning. I was on a great team. And I was happy."

He rehabbed the knee injury and worked his way back into the lineup in just four months -- less than half the time doctors said it would take for him to be ready to play again. His boyhood dreams of making it someday to the NHL were fading ... until the 2004-05 season, when tons of NHL players locked out in North America traveled to Europe to play.

And ...

"I saw the best of the best," Backstrom recalled. "I stopped Saku Koivu and a lot of other NHL players. I beat Dwayne Roloson for the championship."

He also saw his hopes, his dreams, in front of him. Almost.

Wild chief scout Tommy Thompson saw Backstrom play that season and figured he was worth taking a chance on as a backup in their minor league system -- the theory being that Minnesota could get Harding a chance to play a lot, at Houston and at Minnesota -- because Backstrom, due to his age, could be sent up and down without waivers and help in Harding’s development.

Backstrom didn’t know what to make of his first opportunity in the NHL.

"Mikko Koivu (a Wild prospect who knew Backstrom in Finland) convinced me I needed to give this a try. I didn’t know what was going to happen," Backstrom admitted. "I had no promises when I came over here.

"When Josh got hurt, I had my chance to stay in the NHL. And when Manny got hurt I got a couple of starts. But it wasn’t until Christmas that I started to feel comfortable with the team, with my game, with everything. And even then I had only played about 10 games in the NHL."

"We put him in there and he carried the team. That was the turning point of our season," said Risebrough. "We found out that he’s competitive, not much bothers him. I don’t know where we would have been without him."

And now Backstrom is back ... only this time he has some guarantees, like a new contract, a commitment for two years and new confidence. He’ll turn 30 in February, but there are no what-ifs in his mind.

"I’d wear myself out wondering if I did something differently when I was 24 if things would have been different," Backstrom said, matter-of-factly. "I can only worry about the future, about now.

"In some ways coming back this season is different. I am more experienced now. I know all the guys here, the system we play. I know how most of the other teams play, which players to watch. But I have to be the same goalie I was last year. That's what I have to focus on."

A natural — even if he is 29.

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