A game-by-game autopsy of Niklas Backstrom’s playoff failings is in order on the cusp of his first playoff start in five years. These games are particularly worth examining as the Minnesota Wild’s current lack of defensive depth will put a heavy burden on the goaltender in the coming weeks. Will he shake off long ago disappointments and carry this top-heavy team far?
Backstrom made an impressive NHL debut in 2006-07, wresting the starting job from incumbent Manny Fernandez. Unfortunately for a well-rounded Minnesota squad which had just set a franchise record with 104 points, they entered the playoffs as the seventh-seed against eventual Stanley Cup winner Anaheim Ducks, a would-be contender for the best Cup champion ever. It was also a particularly tough Western Conference that season as a record seven of eight playoff teams notched over 100 points (matched by the conference again in 2009-10).
April 11, 2007
Minnesota Wild (1) at Anaheim Ducks (2)
32 saves-34 shots
A Teemu Selanne breakaway goal and controversial game winner from Dustin Penner marred Backstrom’s magnificent playoff debut, which was highlighted by stopping Selanne on a two-on-zero. Penner won the game with less than six minutes left in the third period after the Minnesota goalie felt he had covered a loose puck: “I watched the replay and I was sure it was under me and nobody saw the puck. Of course, you’re going to get the puck out from a goalie if you slash at it with your sticks.”
April 13, 2007
Minnesota Wild (2) at Anaheim Ducks (3)
22 saves-25 shots
Francois Beauchemin beat Backstrom twice on the power play, on a screen and side-to-side. But the one that the Finnish stopper would probably most like to have back was a high, shorthanded backhander snapped by a young Ryan Getzlaf. That game-winning goal can also certainly be blamed on Martin Skoula, who was NSFW undressed by Getzlaf one on one. The cocky 21-year-old thought little of the Wild defense: “I think I wasted more energy on the celebration than on the actual goal.”
April 15, 2007
Anaheim Ducks (2) at Minnesota Wild (1)
17 saves-19 shots
In another one-goal loss, Andy McDonald had a power play deflection, while Rob Niedermayer snapped home a stoppable high wrister on the rush for the third-period game winner. While the Wild had managed to stay close with an intimidating Ducks squad through three games, Brian Rolston was reduced to complaining about his opposition’s defensive tactics: “Maybe they’re the best team in the league at holding up. They must be.”
April 17, 2007
Anaheim Ducks (1) at Minnesota Wild (4)
28 saves-29 shots (Second Star of the game)
Chris Pronger tallied a power play marker, but Backstrom played ably to earn his first-ever playoff victory. The win came at a significant cost, however, as Minnesota lost their best defenseman, Kim Johnsson, for the next game because of a concussion inflicted by a Brad May sucker punch. Johnsson had led the team with 23:33 Average Time on Ice (ATOI) during the regular season.
April 19, 2007
Minnesota Wild (1) at Anaheim Ducks (4)
35 saves-38 shots
It just wasn’t Backstrom’s night as Pronger scored on a deflection, Getzlaf potted another backhander (this time on the power play), and Corey Perry shoveled one home (after the Minnesota goalie again might have covered the puck). Anaheim added an empty netter to finish off the disconsolate rookie’s first foray into the second season: “I feel really empty. I’ve been really working for this, and it’s over too soon.”
In all, Backstrom played decently in this series, but against the loaded Ducks, Minnesota needed something special. With five power play goals given up, Minnesota didn’t do their goaltender any favors, while a couple high, questionable goals allowed at critical moments by the rookie sealed their fate.
Backstrom performed well in his first season as full-fledged starter, leading the Wild to their first-ever division title. In the first round, they faced the last remnants of a Colorado Avalanche superpower that was ready to be toppled as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Adam Foote were all in their twilight.
April 9, 2008
Colorado Avalanche (3) at Minnesota Wild (2) (Overtime)
19 saves-22 shots
Any time Kurt Sauer scores on you, somebody made a mistake. In this case, Marian Gaborik’s backcheck sleepwalk let Sauer walk in on an abandoned Backstrom. Ryan Smyth added a power play tip-in later in the first period. In overtime, an unlucky bounce off Skoula led to an easy put-in for Sakic. The goalie comes out blameless here, even stopping a penalty shot by Smyth with two minutes left in regulation.
April 11, 2008
Colorado Avalanche (2) at Minnesota Wild (3) (Overtime)
24 saves-26 shots (Second Star of the game)
This time, Backstrom was rewarded for his solid play, overcoming careless puck movement by Sean Hill that led to Forsberg having space in the slot to snap a Hall of Fame wrister. Milan Hejduk also added a power play goal.
April 14, 2008
Minnesota Wild (3) at Colorado Avalanche (2) (Overtime)
44 saves-46 shots (Third Star of the game)
Tough-to-handle shots gave both Andrew Brunette and Sakic easy rebounds. Backstrom was irate after Sakic’s put-in because he was taken out of the play by Brunette, but it was Aaron Voros who drove the former Wild hero into the netminder.
April 15, 2008
Minnesota Wild (1) at Colorado Avalanche (5) (Overtime)
24 saves-29 shots (Pulled)
Up 2-1 and poised to pen the last chapters of “The Fall of the Colorado Avalanche Empire,” Backstrom and the Wild forgot to bring the paper. Instead, they leaked three first-period goals to Brunette, Wojtek Wolski, and Tyler Arnason, product of sloppy goaltending and sloppier team play. Ruslan Salei and Hejduk finished off the drubbing with second-period power play goals before Minnesota pulled their starter.
April 17, 2008
Colorado Avalanche (3) at Minnesota Wild (2)
14 saves-17 shots
Minnesota threw up 40 shots and only surrendered 17. And while Brunette’s power play goal was deflected by Johnsson, and Wolski slammed home a man-advantage one-timer, Paul Stastny’s game-winning backhander in the third period, in tight but at a tough angle, seemed like the right time for the right goalie to step up.
April 19, 2008
Minnesota Wild (1) at Colorado Avalanche (2)
28 saves-30 shots
Though victimized by a Ben Guite shorthanded breakaway and a Smyth game-winning slapper, Backstrom rebounded from consecutive disappointing efforts. But Minnesota again went home in the first round.
Essentially, both Backstrom and company no showed Game Four, while the goalie didn’t do enough in a pivotal Game Five. Jacques Lemaire echoed this after being eliminated: “I think the key game was Game 5. It was huge. We probably played our best game and lost it.” Unlike the previous season’s playoff matchup, this was a very winnable series against a fading Avalanche squad that was promptly swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
In summary, Backstrom has played decently for the Wild in the playoffs, except for noisy hiccups against Colorado, but he’s yet to flash a signature postseason stretch. Considering that he’s been one of the better-paid goalies in the league throughout most of his career, it’s right to expect something exceptional from him. And on the last year of his contract, as his current, defensemen-challenged Wild teammates back their way into the playoffs, this may be his last chance to prove to Minnesota that he really can be a game-changing stopper.