Hiya Wilderness! I don't know about you, but I've been pretty cheerful lately since the Wild have been having an amazing run and are actually looking like a playoff team! Of course, we of all fan bases should know not to get ahead of ourselves, because Wild's current 8th spot is pretty fragile. One bad stretch and it could be lights out. For now however, the Wild are 9-2-0 in their last 11 games and there are many factors in play for this strong run, but perhaps none more important than the excellent play the Wild have been getting from Niklas Backstrom lately. Last season, his star status was put into question because of a rough transition from Jacques Lemaire's system to Todd Richards' and many thought he was but a product of the trap. This season however, Backs has made the turnaround the team needed from him and it has translated into the Wild possibly making the playoffs.
Seeing as today is Backstrom's birthday, let's talk about this in greater detail, shall we?
One of the bigger ''ifs'' coming into the season was Niklas Backstrom. The Wild had chances to make the playoffs IF Backstrom came back to his Vezina-finalist form. His numbers took a massive hit last season in the Wild's first season playing away from Lemaire's defense-first strategies and Backstrom never seemed to be able to get into games. Of course, awful team-defense was mostly to blame. Hell, it's a surprise Backstrom was able to keep his cool for the entire season. Now, coming into this season, the fans were divided: some said it was just a fluke, quite normal for a transitional season in which the Wild had a dramatic change of philosophy and some said Backstrom was never that good to begin with and Lemaire's system could make any goalie good.
So far this season, Backstrom is showing that the first group was probably right. He's currently posting his second-best season so far in terms of SV% with a .927, currently good for 3rd in the league. His very respectable 2.33 GAA is good for 9th in the league and is right on par with his career tendancy. In his last 7 starts, he is 5-2-0 he has allowed 10 goals and posted a save percentage of .956. Those 7 starts included 2 shutouts, a heroic 40 save effort in an unfair 1-0 loss (unfair to Backstrom that is. The rest of the team deserved an even more crushing loss) and he never went lower than a .922 SV% despite allowing 4 in a game against San Jose. What's more is that including those two shutouts, he allowed 2 goals or fewer in 6 of those 7 starts. That's consistency folks. He's the single most important player on the team right now if you ask me, as his strong performances have catapulted the Wild right back into the playoff race, and this only a few weeks after we had basically lost hope.
Here are some more stats for you: In his 33 starts, he's allowed 2 goals or fewer 23 times, but he also allowed 5 goals or more 5 times, which included a 3 game stretch in which he had allowed 18 goals, which had the Wilderness wondering about two things: 1) What was happening to our starter? 2) Why the hell was Richards keeping him on the ice?
Yes, despite having what is shaping up to be perhaps his second-best season with the Wild (He'd be hard pressed to beat his numbers from his first season: 23-8-6, .929 SV%, 1.97 GAA), there have been some rough patches this year for our starter. First of all, there came a time in which Backstrom's poor play and Theodore's strong play in his supporting role was putting Backstrom's starter status in question. To anyone just looking at his numbers, it would seem inconceivable, and to me, that speaks mountains of how good Backstrom has been all season in posting such numbers despite almost losing his #1 job. Needless to say, he bounced back admirably and is now the key cog to the Wild's recent success. Then came yet another of Backstrom's annual injury troubles. This time, he missed 9 games because of his nagging hip. Now, in those 9 games, relief came in the form of Jose Theodore and Anton Khudobin, who performed quite admirably to keep the Wild afloat in Backs' absence. Theo racked up 4 wins in 6 starts, but allowed 15 goals, 13 of them coming in three games, which means the 3 others were a shutout and two 1-goal games. ''The Dreidel'' won 2 of his three starts, one of which was done by shutout as well, making the Wild the only team to have had 3 different netminders record at least one shutout this year (that's right, even the New-York Islanders and their 6 goalies can't make that claim). Luckily, Backstrom's injury didn't cause him to skip a beat. In fact, it practically made him stronger!
Another gripe some people used to have towards Backstrom is that he very rarely made any mind-blowing highlight reel saves. True, Backstrom was never seen as a flashy goaltender, just an extremely solid, calm, cool and collected positional goalie. This year however, Backstrom has been, quite honestly, surprising when it comes to some of these saves, mostly because we're not used to seeing them from him. That isn't to say he just gives up on plays, because he never does, but we've never seen him quite so... athletic? Doesn't seem like the right word, because he is an amazing athelete if there ever was one, but you get the idea. Here are a few recent examples:
Notice the score, 1-1. That game ended 4-2 for the Wild, thanks in part to that game-changing save, and a horrible call by the refs on what should've been a good Chicago goal. Brouwer maybe could've gotten the shot off quicker, but it took amazing hustle by Backstrom to shake off his own player who had crashed into him and dive way the heck over to an unsuspecting Brouwer to make the save. This shows the incredible strength and never-give-up attitude that Backstrom boasts.
This was huge. 0-0 after regulation, 0-0 in the shootout, Backstrom who, let's face it, has never been very good in the shootout, comes up with this amazing save on Johnson and Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored, leaving Backstrom to make another save, which he did to seal the first shootout victory for the Wild this year against a team who was tied with them in points at the time if I'm not mistaken. If I am mistaken, they were at least very close. A lot of people told me that was a lucky save. As a goalie myself (hockey-ball goalie, but goalie nonetheless), I can tell you that this save is much harder than it looks. While some luck is involved, it takes great mental concentration to even think of kicking the foot up, because most goalies at this point would just lay down and hope the shooter keeps the puck low. Also, it take a great deal of athelticism and strength to follow Johnson all the way. For the importance of that save, and it's difficulty, I would consider this the save of the year for the Wild, and a serious candidate for save of the year.
When all is said and done, the Wild defense has also helped enormously in Backstrom's bounce-back season, in that they are more protective of their goaltender, they've been better at keeping the shots coming from the outside and taking care of the rebounds, but the fact of the matter is that despite all that, Backstrom has actually been much busier this season, receiving an average of 32 shots per game, compared to 27 last season. Backstrom has simply been better at gobbling the puck up, delivering fewer rebounds, better with his stickwork, using it to poke the puck off players' sticks, knocking it away from danger and even starting the play with passes (although he has yet to record an assist) and he's been able to make those game-saving saves that were rather lacking from his game.
There's not much left to say. Niklas Backstrom has been simply phenomenal for the Wild his season and those who tell me otherwise need to have their marbles checked. To me, he's been the Wild's MVP so far. The Wild will need him to carry much of the load in this final stretch, so let's hope he can keep this up.
Happy birthday Niklas, and thank you.