Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra have received most of the credit for the longest winning streak in Minnesota Wild franchise history, but rookie Niklas Backstrom's smooth transition to starting goaltender has been just as important.
The surging Wild (44-24-7) look to extend their eight-game winning streak Saturday when they host the Los Angeles Kings, with Backstrom expected to start in net.
The undrafted 29-year-old goaltender has started seven games during the streak, compiling a 1.54 goals-against average in those contests while making 175 saves. Backstrom, who only made nine starts prior to the All-Star break, has seen increased action due to a sprained knee suffered by Manny Fernandez, who is expected to be sidelined for a few more days.
"He got a chance and he made the best of it," said Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough. "That came with winning games when Manny wasn't on at the start of the year, relieving Manny sometimes, then he got the chance to be the No. 1."
Backstrom has helped put the Wild in good playoff position with just a few weeks left in the season. Minnesota is 19-4-3 since the All-Star break, but remains one point behind Vancouver for the Northwest Division lead as the Canucks have gone 18-4-4 over the same stretch.
"It's hard, everybody's winning, it's unbelievable," Demitra said. "We've won so many games and we're still in the same place. We're not moving anywhere."
The remaining schedule may work to Minnesota's advantage. The Wild play six of their seven remaining regular-season games at home, where they are 25-6-4.
Backstrom, who has never faced the Kings (26-35-14), made 22 saves in Thursday's 5-1 win over the St. Louis Blues. Gaborik had two goals and an assist while Demitra had a goal and two assists. The tandem has combined for 66 points in Minnesota's last 24 games.
Gaborik has five goals and seven assists during a seven-game point streak.
"Gabby, we're trying to keep him a little more on the offense side, and it seemed to work out," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. "It seems to give a little more room to Pav. They have to go and watch him, and when he makes that pass, Gabby usually has one guy to beat and he usually makes something happen."
Minnesota has won all three of its previous meetings this season with the Kings, who are eliminated from playoff contention but beat the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 on Friday to improve to 4-1-1 in their last six games.
Patrick O'Sullivan scored midway through the first period to extend his point streak to seven games, and defenseman Mike Weaver broke the stalemate 16:31 into the final period with a power-play goal - just the third score of his career. The five-year veteran's first goal came on Feb. 6.
"Mike is probably the one player that we've had this year that we didn't play enough early," Kings coach Marc Crawford said. "When he got his opportunity in early January, he's been good since then."