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Backstrom well worth the wait for Wild

by Karl Samuelson /

"I think he has held our team together. We've had a couple of key injuries this year and he's been the backbone of our defense. Nik has been outstanding. It doesn't matter what type of situation he gets put in, he thrives on the pressure."
-- Josh Harding

Age is just a number. That has proved to be especially true when it comes to NHL goaltenders in general and Minnesota Wild standout Niklas Backstrom in particular. The 30-year-old Backstrom is a relative late bloomer, now playing in just his third NHL season.

Backstrom is the perfect complement to Minnesota's stingy defensive style of play. A solid first-stop goaltender who rarely gets rattled, the 30-year-old native of Helsinki has a special quality that cannot be taught -- calmness.

And not just calmness in himself. Backstrom brings a serenity to the whole team when he is in the net and on many nights he is the Wild's most valuable player.

"I think he has held our team together," Minnesota backup goalie Josh Harding said. "We've had a couple of key injuries this year and he's been the backbone of our defense. Nik has been outstanding. It doesn't matter what type of situation he gets put in, he thrives on the pressure. He is making everything look really easy out there. Nik looks calm, but he also works hard on his game and has always been like that. He comes to work every day.

"As a backup goalie it is really an honor for me to see a guy who works hard to improve his game. I know that he is a competitive goalie and a mature guy. It is definitely going to help my career by playing with a goalie of that pedigree. He played against older men in Finland and learned a lot from them on the way to the NHL. To me, that role model is Nik and I'm just hoping to take what he has in his game and transfer it into mine."

"Teams are a little more patient with goalies," said Vancouver Canucks goalie Curtis Sanford. "Their approach is let them grow, let them mature. When they get to the NHL, it's not like this is new. They've been around and they're ready for it. You are starting to see that a lot now.

"Tim Thomas played in Finland for years and eventually came back over to North America," Sanford said. "He came back when he was 28 and he is playing awesome for the Boston Bruins. I don't know if it is better over in Europe than the American Hockey League, but certainly the pro leagues over there deserve some credit."

Nothing proves Sanford's point better than Backstrom's emergence. Goaltending has been the foundation of the team since the Wild entered the NHL in 2000-01. With Backstrom now the No. 1 goalie, the position has never been in more capable hands. In fact, in less than three seasons, Backstrom has emerged as one of the most accomplished netminders in the NHL.

"Two years ago, he was the save percentage leader and last year he was .920 and he has been around .925 this season, so he has continued what he started here in Minnesota," Wild goalie coach Bob Mason said. "He had a great training camp and he carried it into the current season. One little blip on the screen was a Dallas game where we weren't good in front of him, they got a couple of quick ones and made it 3-0, but he has been sharp from the start."

Backstrom's NHL resume is impressive but not long. That's not to say that he isn't battle-hardened.

"That's true," said Mason. "He played a lot of games in Finland and won league championships over there. He had some highs and lows. Niklas is 30, so he probably dealt with his share of highs and lows. He is a pretty smart guy, mentally tough and I think a lot of that developed during his career in Finland. I have found him to be very easy to work with and a very receptive student. We do a lot of tape work and he is very even-keeled for a goaltender."

Fortunately for the Wild, Backstrom feels at the peak of his game.

"I feel good out there," Backstrom said. "I got off to a good start with a good training camp and early season. I try to work on being consistent, but there are many games left and you want to go one game at a time and try to get even better. Every night is tough out there so you have to play at your best every night if you want to give your team a chance to win."

No team is more aware of Backstrom's determination to give his team a fighting chance for victory than their arch-rival Canucks.

"Every game against Minnesota is a dog fight," said Sanford, "and it seems that he is stopping everything. They got off to a great start as a team and as a goalie, I think he got off to the best start in the League. Backstrom just seems to win. His positioning is great, he's got a great glove hand and when you really assess him you see that he is just solid everywhere. He is quick, has great reflexes and great flexibility. No team is going to score weak goals on Backstrom. You're going to have to battle to get your goals."

Mason provided a scouting report on his goaltending phenom without giving away any trade secrets.

"When he is on top of his game, his positioning is A-1," Mason said. "He is beating passes to where they are going, he is getting set, getting there and getting quiet. And when he is like that he is pretty clean with the first shot. So those are some of the keys that he works on and tries to maintain."

Backstrom gives his club a chance to win every game, even when team offense takes the night off. Winning takes commitment, focus and confidence in your own abilities. Minnesota's version of the Great Wall of China believes that if he sees the puck he is going to stop it.

"Seeing the puck is the biggest thing," Backstrom said. "You try to make it as tough as possible for the other team to score, so you want to see the puck and stop every shot."
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