“I didn’t know anything about him,” Rolston said. He wasn’t alone. Few Minnesota players knew who Niklas Backstrom was when he signed with the Wild, and his soft-spoken demeanor kept that anonymity through much of camp.
Now, this 29-year-old rookie is the key to their success. Backstrom will enter the NHL playoffs against Anaheim on Wednesday night as the team’s unquestioned No. 1 goalie, with a league-leading 1.97 goals-against average, and his league-best .929 save percentage earned him the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Backstrom, who entered the season just hoping to beat out Josh Harding to back up Manny Fernandez.
“I don’t even think he was supposed to get a chance to play an exhibition game this year until Harding went down with a groin pull,” Rolston said. “He’s just a tremendous competitor.
“He’s been great for us. I obviously didn’t know much about him, but I think he’s one of the keys why we turned it around the second half.”
Backstrom took over in late January when Fernandez went down with a knee injury and never looked back. He is 19-3-4 in his last 28 starts and has relegated Fernandez, who signed a $13-million, three-year extension last season to be the main man, to spectator status.
Fernandez’s knee is still bothering him, and Harding will be the No. 2 goalie when the playoffs begin. But this is Backstrom’s job, a fact even he never saw coming.
“For me, the season has been like a dream,” Backstrom said. “You don’t want to wake up from it.
“You want to continue as long as possible.”
Just how long will largely be up to how the rookie handles his first taste of the NHL post-season. By all accounts, playoff hockey is light years ahead of the regular season in speed, intensity and media attention.
The closest experience Backstrom has is leading Karpat Oulu to back-to-back Finnish Elite League titles in 2003-04 and 2004-05.
At his age, Backstrom is hardly the standard excitable rookie, so coach Jacques Lemaire isn’t concerned about the lights being too bright.
“I don’t think so,” Lemaire said. “He’s a guy that really looks in control.
“I don’t think anything will shake him up. He’s solid mentally and he’s been the same guy that was there the first day he came in. He hasn’t changed, which is great.”
Backstrom doesn’t have to look too far back to find a rookie goaltender who thrived in his first crack at the playoffs.
Cam Ward took over for struggling starter Martin Gerber in the first round last season, then carried the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup title.
The 22-year-old Ward won his first seven post-season starts, the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the Stanley Cup MVP and became the first rookie goaltender to hoist the Cup since Patrick Roy in 1986.
The most shocking aspect about Ward’s emergence was that he won more games in the playoffs (15) than he did all regular season (14). To Backstrom’s advantage, he’s been playing regularly for months, earning the confidence and respect of his teammates.
“We believe in him and we’re excited about our chances and we feel confident with him behind us,” Rolston said.
The guy who nobody knew six months ago slowly won everyone over with his unflappable composure and unshakable optimism.
“He’s kind of a real calm, collected individual,” defenceman Nick Schultz said. “He stays on an even keel and I don’t think we’ll have to worry too much about him.”
Backstrom enters the playoffs wanting to show everyone that his regular-season success is no fluke.
“That’s what it’s felt like the whole season,” he said. “Every day I came to the rink thinking I have to prove to myself and my teammates and everybody around here that I belong on this team.
“It’s the same way now.”
Sounds like a lot of pressure.
“No pressure at all,” Backstrom said. “I play hockey because it’s fun and I love this game.
“I’m not playing because somebody’s telling me to do this. I play because I want to play. There’s no pressure there.”