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Two hours before the game, Niklas Backstrom stands alone. Dressed in his Minnesota Wild track suit, he stares straight ahead, steps onto the concrete floor of the stadium's lower ring, and lurches into a slow jog.
Backstrom takes his time. It's less than half a mile around the Xcel Center, but he's moving slowly enough that a spry grandma could outpace him.
He jogs for 15 minutes. Then he goes to the team meeting. Then he stretches.
Then he's ready.
At 7 p.m. the buzzer blares. The lights flash over the ice.
"Niklas Baaaaaackstrom!" the announcer calls out.
Midway through the second period, the Wild have shot only four times. Meanwhile, Backstrom has stopped 18 San Jose pucks.
"Sharks swept all four from the Wild last year," the announcer reminds the crowd.
The Sharks' center aims and fires.
Backstrom's reaction is instantaneous. He drops to his knees, splaying his legs out like the wings of a butterfly.
"Stop. Re-BOUND! Pass. Save, Back-Strom! And he's got this one in the crease!"
The scene repeats itself throughout the night. The Sharks shoot again and again—36 times, all told—and Backstrom doesn't let even one slide into the net. The Wild win the game, 1-0. Backstrom gets his first shutout of the season and the 20th of his career.
"I thought we played well," says Todd McLellan, the Sharks' coach, after the game. "But Backstrom was better."
FINLAND HAS BEEN exporting goalies to the National Hockey League in droves in recent years, and Backstrom is among the small hockey nation's finest.
The number-one goalie for the Minnesota Wild was good enough to earn the backup spot on Finland's 2010 Olympic Team, where he bested the starter in save percentage and goals-against-average, and helped Finland take home the bronze.
In his first season in the NHL, Backstrom led the league with the lowest goals-against-average. With fellow goalie Manny Fernandez, Backstrom took home the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league. Every year but one, his stats have been better than his team's.
"Well, I think the goalie is the most important guy," says center and fellow Finn Mikko Koivu, the team's captain.
Backstrom is the product of a movement that began in Finland 27 years ago, around the time that the goaltender first strapped on skates. Recognizing an opportunity to excel, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association decided to pump extraordinary effort into goalie coaching at every level.
"The Finnish goalies get a better foundation than goalies in almost any other country," says Jukka Ropponen, who helped the association make the push.
The resulting crop was so good that they outgrew SM-liiga, the elite Finnish league considered the number-two system in Europe. The Finnish goalie pipeline has produced greats like Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and San Jose's Antero Niittymäki, and now the Wild's Backstrom.
The solitude of netminding is a comfortable fit for the Finn. If Minnesotans are reserved and private compared to the rest of our countrymen, we look like brash New Yorkers compared to the Finnish people.
"In Finland, I would never consider saying 'Hi," to the bus driver or saying 'Thank you,'" says Marko Kananen, a Finnish transplant to Minnesota. "When I moved here I was really shocked when people in the bus started to talk to me."
It makes sense that a culture this introverted would produce athletes who thrive in solitary sports. Finland has never done particularly well in team sports, but has always owned individual competitions such as the javelin throw or Nordic ski jumping.
"Those are all very lonely positions," Ropponen says. "Those are quiet, kind of introverted people that are really successful in those."
Small wonder that Backstrom prefers to deflect attention to his teammates.
"The thing I like about him is it's always team first, it's never individual," says Todd Richards, the Wild's head coach. "A lot of times goalies get a lot of credit. He's very humble. 'The guys in front of me did a great job.' And it's genuine. It's real."
BACKSTROM'S BETWEEN THE pipes, pucks flying. Two wings shuttle the puck back and forth in front of the net. Backstrom dives to the right. The offense sees the opening to the left. The other wing scoots the puck into net—right through the wide-open back door.
Backstrom throws his head back—one of the few signs of frustration he ever shows. And this isn't even a game.
"He doesn't like to give up any goals in the practice, either," says Wild teammate and fellow Finn Antti Miettinen.
Backstrom comes from a long tradition of netminders—his grandfather and father were goalies, and at the age of six, Backstrom strapped on the bulked pads. He liked the equipment, and he had the right disposition for the pressure cooker.
"I've never seen him breaking a stick or throwing a bottle," says Olli Ahonen, who played with Backstrom in Helsinki, on the under-20 and men's teams. "If there's emotions, he doesn't show it to the outside."
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