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Wild about Backstrom: With Fernandez out, backup is thriving @NHL

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -The Minnesota Wild paid big money for a No. 1 goaltender last year.

Right now, it's Niklas Backstrom who is giving them a return on the investment, and not Manny Fernandez.

The little-known Backstrom was signed out of Finland in the offseason to back up Fernandez, who signed a three-year, $13 million extension to be the Wild's first legitimate No. 1 goaltender.

But Fernandez has been sidelined because of a sprained left knee for the last six games, and seven of the past nine. Backstrom has filled in quite capably, going 5-1-1 since Fernandez was initially hurt on Jan. 20. Entering Thursday's games, his 2.21 goals-against average was fourth in the NHL and his .926 save percentage was third.

Though the Wild were beaten in overtime 3-2 by Vancouver on Wednesday night, coach Jacques Lemaire was at least pleased by Backstrom's performance between the pipes.

"He didn't need as much luck last night," Lemaire said after the team practiced Thursday at Parade Ice Garden in Minneapolis. "Last night, to me, he was really good. He gave me confidence. He gave me more confidence than ever."

Backstrom, who made 31 saves against the Canucks, is in his first NHL season, but he's not really a rookie at age 29. After playing the past four seasons in his native country with Karpat Oulu in the Finnish Elite League, Backstrom earned the backup spot behind Fernandez when Josh Harding was bothered by a groin problem.

Fernandez endured one of his familiar slumps in November, but overall was playing up to his employer's expectations before the injury.

He helped spark Minnesota's recent surge - a 10-3-2 record over the last 15 games - by posting back-to-back wins at division rivals Vancouver and Edmonton on Jan. 11 and 12 to stop the Wild's 11-game winless streak on the road. Minnesota, with 67 points, is in eighth place in the Western Conference, but just three points behind fifth-place Dallas.

Backstrom, who shows a shy, soft-spoken manner when approached by reporters, has seemed to use that stoic style for his benefit on the ice.

"I try to just go the way I've been going the whole season, just one game at a time and not trying to think too much," Backstrom said.

Fernandez won't travel with the team to Nashville and St. Louis this weekend, and Lemaire said Thursday that he thought Fernandez, who is his nephew, would be out longer than originally anticipated - which was the first two to three weeks of February.

Harding will only start if Backstrom needs a break, Lemaire said, leaving more opportunities for Backstrom to get consistent playing time - even when Fernandez returns - and drive up the price of his next contract. Backstrom could be an unrestricted free agent after the season, but to consider a raise would belie the modest approach that has so far worked well for him.

"That's nothing I can or should be thinking about," Backstrom said.

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