Wild rookie an old pro

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The way Niklas Backstrom has burst onto the NHL scene, you wonder what took him so long.

The Minnesota Wild goaltender is a first-year NHLer but, having turned 29 last month, is too old to be eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Seeing as he'll head into tonight's meeting with the Calgary Flames on a personal seven-game winning streak, it's hard to understand why he wasn't given a shot until this season.

At least until the product of Helsinki, Finland, explains why.

"If I would have come five or six years earlier, I would not have been ready to play. Not physically and not mentally," Backstrom said yesterday.

"Now that I'm older, I see it pretty much like hockey back home. For a goalie, experience is a good thing."

Backstrom, who leads the league with a 2.12 goals against average and .925 save percentage, received plenty of experience before his big break.

A late bloomer, even by goaltender standards, Backstrom was twice lauded as the top goaltender in Finland's top league and backstopped Karpat to a pair of league titles -- in which he was named playoff MVP -- before getting his chance.

Undrafted all these years, the Wild signed him to a one-year contract last summer.

A part of that, he credits Calgary Flames star goalie, Miikka Kiprusoff.

"I think, in Finland, we had good goaltenders 10 and 15 years ago but it was tough for them to come over. You needed one to break out here and show everybody there are good goalies in Finland," he said. "I think Miikka's probably the biggest reason older guys and younger guys are getting a chance here."

Now he has a chance to duplicate a season similar to Kiprusoff's out-of-the-blue emergence. He's won over his teammates.

"We didn't know anything about Nik," said forward Brian Rolston. "I don't even know if he was supposed to get a start in the pre-season but Josh Harding went down with a groin pull so he went in.

"He seized his opportunity. When Manny (Fernandez) got pulled, he went in and won us some games. He's one of the biggest reasons why we pulled ahead as much as we did."

It's been especially important since Fernandez went down with a knee injury in late January.Instead of the Wild's season being derailed, Backstrom has helped them get into the hunt for the Northwest Division title.

With Fernandez out for the remainder of the regular season, Backstrom has been anointed the No.-1 man.

The pressure could be overwhelming for a young goalie. Instead, he has the maturity to take it all in stride.

"I'm trying to do the same things I did before," he said.

"I have to play and work hard in practice the same way as before Christmas when I didn't play."


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