It’s crowded in Minnesota’s goal crease
Sunday, 12 August 2007
Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007
By Lucas Aykroyd
“It’s better to have more than less, because if you have less, you run into problems, and that’s not good for the team,” Manny Fernandez philosophically told Eishockey News after a 3-2 overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks on March 13.
The 32-year-old Minnesota Wild netminder could have been referring to money, power, or love, but instead, he was talking about how his team has three goalies that can all play in the NHL right now. However, ultimately there’ll only be room for two, and since Fernandez has a hefty $13-million, three-year contract, that could result in him being shipped out of Minnesota in the off-season, even though he’s the nephew of head coach Jacques Lemaire.
Lemaire, who spent his playing career with the Stanley Cup-loaded Montreal Canadiens, knows what a rookie NHL netminder can sometimes accomplish, from Ken Dryden in 1971 to Patrick Roy in 1986. Although Finnish goalie Niklas Backstrom is too old to receive Calder Trophy consideration at age 29, the former Karpat Oulu star has debuted in the NHL with the same kind of form that earned him two playoff MVP awards and two Best Goalie trophies in the SM-Liiga. Backstrom coolly took over the starter’s role from Fernandez after the latter strained his left knee in a January 30 game versus St. Louis. His goals-against average and save percentage both ranked in the NHL’s top five as of mid-March.
“When you get a chance to play, that’s the best way to improve your confidence,” said Backstrom. “When you win games, you don’t have to think about it so much. The guys here in the locker room really help me with their defensive work. You feel like it’s safe to play behind them, so to speak.”
Asked to explain his stellar performance, the onetime Finnish Olympian and World Championship goalie offers simple answers: “I’ve got a lot of hockey behind me in Europe, and I was a pretty mature player when I came over here. Also, people have told me that the NHL’s style is more similar to Europe now than it used to be. There’s more cross-ice skating and cross-ice passing. That’s probably one thing that helps European goalies, because we’re accustomed to that since the age of six or seven.”
Josh Harding is the baby of Minnesota’s goaltending trio, but the 22-year-old has played with a composure that belies his years since being recalled from the AHL’s Houston Aeros at the start of February. In a season highlight, this Regina Pats graduate made 30 saves in a 5-0 shutout against Edmonton on March 1. He’s persevered despite the mental agony of having his 26-year-old sister Stephanie diagnosed with breast cancer. In support of her, he’s painted his mask with pink ribbons and started a web site (fundthefight.com) to raise money for cancer research.
“Josh is very confident out there,” said Minnesota sniper Marian Gaborik. “He works hard in practices as well as games. He just catches that puck and doesn’t give a lot of rebounds. We’re confident in all three goalies we have, whether it’s him, Backstrom, or Manny. That’s how it should be.”
And that’s good news for Minnesota fans. Their surging Northwest Division team is bound for its first playoff berth since marching to the Western Conference finals in 2003, and they’ll need great goaltending if they hope to replicate that feat.