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"Niklas Backstrom, we'll see," the announcer said. "Player for the Finnish elite league. He's not a young kid."
The buzzer blared. The sticks clacked. The game was on.
Four minutes into the period, Backstrom stopped his first NHL puck. He kept every puck out for the next 20 minutes—a shutout in his first period as an NHL goalie.
In the third, Nashville slipped two goals past Backstrom. On the other end of the ice, Minnesota's offense scored three to make it 6-5, Wild.
With three minutes left on the clock, the Predators' star center tore down the ice on a breakaway.
"Timonen takes the shot," the announcer cried. "He fires!"
The puck hurtled toward Backstrom. He dropped, bowed his knees, and leaned forward. The puck hit, bounced off his knee pads, and back into play.
The puck flew left. Backstrom reached for it...
Backstrom had saved 17 pucks in 40 minutes in his NHL debut. Afterward, he was nonchalant about his achievement.
"It was easy to get in your first game like that because you can't think so much," he said, "You can't be nervous."
Backstrom finished his first season with a 1.97 goals-against-average—the best in the league. Together with Fernandez, he shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing in the least goals in the league.
"Nik's been terrific," says Chuck Fletcher, the Wild's general manager. "Every night he gives us a chance to win."
"I JUST WONDER if either of you have children," the woman wants to know. "And if you plan to have them play hockey."
It's a Tuesday night at a St. Louis Park tavern, and Backstrom and his Finnish teammate Anti Miettinen are fielding questions from diehard Wild fans who arrived three hours early just to get a seat.
For Miettinen, the question is a softball. "I actually have a son, he's 10 months" he says.
The host, a Wild employee, knows not to go there with Backstrom. He deftly steers the conversation forward without giving the goaltender a chance to respond.
"No one's brought it up, so let's talk about the trip to Finland," he says, waving the mic.
Even for a Finn, Backstrom is notoriously private about his off-ice life. He's had the same girlfriend for years, but he keeps her and the rest of his family carefully under wraps from the press, even in Finland.
In that Nordic nation, the media fawns over hockey stars. Fellow Finns in the NHL such as Teemu Selänne make a big show of driving fancy cars and traveling with an entourage.
"And you don't hear that about Backstrom," says Kananen, the Finnish transplant to Minnesota. "I don't know anything about his personal life, whether he's married or has kids or anything. It's kind of unusual, considering that he's, like, a big star."
His teammates say that Backstrom is quiet, steady, calm. They make fun of him for the only time he gets visibly excited—in the net, yelling directions at the defense.
"We always joke around," says defenseman Nick Schultz. "Him being from Finland, when he's screaming we can't really figure out what he's saying."
Tonight, Backstrom displays his usual singleminded approach.
"What part of your game would you most want to improve on?" a preteen girl asks.
Backstrom deadpans: "Yeah...I would like to stop more pucks."
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