The late bloomer

ROB TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 10:47 AM ET

Niklas Backstrom waited his whole life for this. So why does it all seem so sudden?

Maybe it's because when he finally landed an NHL job after nine years in the Finnish pro leagues, he expected to be nailed to the bench, responsible for little more than opening the gate, while Manny Fernandez swallowed up all the games.

Instead, ready or not, the unknown Finn was thrust into the spotlight, forced to carry Minnesota's tenuous playoff hopes on his 29-year-old shoulders while Fernandez fights back from an injured knee.

"This is what you've been waiting for since you started playing hockey,"he said. "First of all to come over here, and then getting a chance to play in big games.

"I'm just trying to enjoy it because when your career ends, these are the times you are going to remember. So you'd much rather have fun out there than be afraid or scared."

With a 6-2-1 record since stepping in for Fernandez, there doesn't seem much for Backstrom or his teammates to be afraid of.

THAT'S A FOWL MOUTH

Ducks GM Brian Burke has a point about the price of rental players, but, just a hunch here, I bet a lot of his conversations are short and profanity-laced anyway ... Not to be insensitive - different athletes have different pain thresholds, but how many hockey players do you think laughed themselves silly when NBA all-star Dwyane (his mom's spelling mistake, not mine) Wade needed a wheelchair after injuring his shoulder? ... Jeremy Roenick must be delusional. He's lobbying for a contender to pick him up as a rental for the playoffs. It's hard to imagine very many division leaders who are hungry for a 37-year-old seven-goal scorer who's minus-12.

IT'S NOW OR NEVER

The honeymoons are over in expansion Atlanta (1999) and Columbus (2000). Jackets GM Doug MacLean is taking tremendous heat for a team that hasn't been close to the playoffs yet, and Thrashers coach Bob Hartley is turning the burner up himself.

"There's pressure on this organization for the first time ever," Hartley said in a recent state of the union address. "We're still growing, but I'm not going to use, 'We're a young organization.' Time to cut the crap. We have to be (in the playoffs)."

HOLD THAT TAXI

When the coach tells a demoted player he'll be back in the NHL soon, he's usually lying. Not in the case of Chicago's Craig MacDonald. He was assigned to Norfolk before practice this week, then recalled 40 minutes later, while in a cab on the way to the airport, after Tony Salmelainen injured himself in the workout.

NUMBERS GAMES

Spot the trend: Coyotes D Ed Jovanovski played 67 games three seasons ago, 56 games two seasons ago, 44 games last season and is has been out with groin/abdominal injuries since December ... Must have been a wicked stomach flu that sidelined Brian Rolston last week. In the last four years he's played 82, 81, 82 and 82 games ... Ole-Kristian Tollefsen is one tough Norwegian. He has eight fighting majors, second most on the Blue Jackets after Jody Shelley (nine).

BLAME THE MEDIA

Chris Pronger is still playing the victim card.

"The media likes to run with (stories) and make up their own opinions and lies and rumours," he said, when reporters in Anaheim asked about his departure from Edmonton.

Um, Chris, the rumours started because you hid in Mexico after the trade demand and have refused to set the record straight ever since.


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