ST. PAUL, Minn. — Niklas Backstrom said he felt the NHL lockout gave him a “really long summer.”
Good thing Backstrom got the rest when he did, because he’s not resting much at all these days for the Minnesota Wild.
Backstrom, Minnesota’s veteran goaltender, has been the last line in one of the NHL’s best defenses and is thankful for every opportunity he gets in net for the streaking Wild, which includes starts in 14 of the past 15 games.
“For a hockey player it’s fun to play,” Backstrom said after posting his first shutout of the season Saturday in a 2-0 win against the San Jose Sharks. “You don’t have to practice. You don’t have to think. You go out there and play every night. The more you play, the easier it is. I don’t want to say it’s really easy, but you feel more comfortable the more you play.”
With Backstrom in net each game, Minnesota has won five straight games and is 14-5-1 in its past 20 game to take the lead in the Northwest Division. Backstrom, showing shades of the steady workhorse he was when he played 71 games in 2008-09, is 13-3-1 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in his last 17 games. He made 33 saves Saturday, and stopped San Jose’s Andrew Desjardins on a penalty shot in the first period, to notch the 27th shutout of his career.
“He made very difficult saves look easy tonight,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “When you see him playing like that, boy, it’s a confident feeling on the bench.”
Yeo would probably like to get Backstrom some rest, but the seven-year veteran from Finland is making things tough for Yeo to sit him. With veteran backup Josh Harding on injured reserve, Minnesota has swapped young, promising goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Matt Hackett between the Wild and Houston Aeros of the AHL just to keep them from sitting too long.
Backstrom isn’t showing any signs of slowing or needing a break.
He’s tied with Montreal’s Carey Price and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury for the league lead with 16 wins this season. Backstrom is carrying a 2.23 goals-against average (eighth among goaltenders who’ve started 10 games this season) and .921 save percentage (seventh) in his 25 games this season (16-7-2).
“I feel good,” Backstrom said. “I think the whole team feels good. It’s the whole unit. It’s six guys out there working together, doing all the details. It helps so much when you have everyone playing the same way. For sure, for a goalie, that’s huge to get the help I get every night.”
For Backstrom, the work he put in during the “long” summer that included the months of December and January is paying off now.
Backstrom has made 10 starts in a row, winning eight, and he even played both games of a back-to-back while traveling on March 9-10. Saturday’s win ran his record to 9-3-1 at home this season with a 1.96 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
“You look at his game, obviously he’s confident, said defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who scored his fourth goal of the season Satutday. “We try and block them out as much as we can, but when we break down he’s the man behind us that bails us out.”
Backstrom’s games-played has decreased each of the past three seasons and he played just 46 games last season, his fewest since he played in 41 as a rookie. But his play hasn’t slipped. He’s worked to get himself to this point and is enjoying his regular time in the net.
“That’s why I’ve been working,” Backstrom said. “You just have to take care of your mind and body, but that’s part of being a professional hockey player.”