Commentary

Backstrom on antics in the crease and the Swedes vs. Finns dynamic

Updated: November 6, 2008, 1:23 AM ET
By David Amber | Special to ESPN.com

Last season, only three goalies finished the season ranked in the top 10 in goals-against average, save percentage and wins.

Martin Brodeur, Jean-Sebastien Giguere … and Niklas Backstrom.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. In less than three seasons in the NHL, Backstrom has become a fan favorite in Minnesota, and one of the league's best-kept secrets.

Niklas Backstrom -- Quick Facts

• He won the William M. Jennings Trophy in 2007 (along with Manny Fernandez).

• He led the NHL in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929) in 2007.

• He won championships in the Finnish Elite League in 2004 and 2005.

• He went undrafted, but was signed by Minnesota as a free agent on June 1, 2006.

In this week's Facing Off, we find out what the real difference is between Swedish and Finnish hockey players, whom Backstrom chooses between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and why Tomas Holmstrom won't be getting a Christmas card from the Wild's go-to goalie.

Question from Amber: You have been one of the NHL's best goalies for the past two and a half seasons. How do you explain not being drafted?

Answer from Backstrom: [Laughs] I don't know. I guess when I was younger, I didn't play so well. Also, at that time, it was pretty tough for European goalies to get over here. I think it has changed these days. Teams know that you can find good goalies from Europe, too.

Q: You were the No. 3 goalie for Finland's silver-medal team at the 2006 Olympics. What was that like for you, almost winning gold, but not getting the chance to play?

A: I was playing back in Finland that season, so I was surprised I got picked to the team at all. It was one of the best experiences of my life. The whole team was amazing. We had a great chemistry and you could see why we did so well. The first week, I was walking around the Olympic Village with my mouth open; it was amazing. It was hard to believe I was in the Olympics. I think that's the biggest dream for every athlete and I was there. It was a great couple of weeks.

Q: Do you think you deserve to be Finland's starting goalie in 2010?

A: [Laughs] I don't know, it's still far away. So much can happen between now and then. Finland has so many good goalies, so I will have to play really well just to make the team again. The coaches will have a tough time picking the team.

Q: Is there a friendly rivalry between you and fellow countrymen Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala, knowing you are the three players battling for the No. 1 job?

A: I think it's more like everyone is proud of each other. We follow what each other does. I have seen a lot of Miikka's games, because he has been so good for so long. But when we play each other, we really want to win; no one wants to lose to a friend.

Q: So that's a friendly rivalry, but how would you describe the rivalry between Sweden and Finland?

A: [Laughs] Those are the biggest games. The fans back home can't wait until we play. I don't know why, but Sweden has beaten us so many times in a final in international games. They have won their championships, so I think it is our time now.

Q: What is the biggest difference between Swedish and Finnish hockey players?

A: [Pause] That's hard. I think the Swedish players are very skilled and good with the puck. I think that comes from their ball culture, all the soccer they play as kids. Finnish players, we have skill too, but it's all about work ethic. We know we aren't always the most skilled players, but we try to be the guys with the biggest heart.

Q: What are the hockey fans in Minnesota like?

A: They're great. It's probably one of the best places in the States to play hockey. They support us and they are some of the most knowledgeable fans, so you have to play well to get their support, and that's how it should be. It's a good feeling to know when you're at home, you always play in front of a sold-out crowd, and I think that's a unique atmosphere. It's a great hockey community.

Q: Who do you think is the league's best goalie?

A: Wow, so many good ones … Brodeur, [Henrik] Lundqvist, [Roberto] Luongo.

Q: Pick one.

A. Probably Brodeur. You just look at what he has done. Every big game he plays, he steps up and makes the big saves. He wins games. That's what you want from a goalie.

Q: Which player gives you fits in a shootout?

[+] EnlargeNiklas Backstrom
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayNiklas Backstrom is in his third season with the Minnesota Wild.

A: We practice it a lot, and Mikko Koivu is really good. I don't like trying to stop him in practice, and when he scores, he is pretty cocky, too. In a game, Pavel Datsyuk; he is hard to read, what he is going to do.

Q: If you choose either Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin for your team, who do you pick?

A: [Laughs] C'mon, you're killing me. Those are two of the best players. I guess I go now with Ovechkin, just because Crosby is hurt. That makes it a little bit easier.

[Editor's note: This interview was conducted after Crosby left a game last week with an undisclosed injury; he returned to action in Pittsburgh's following game.]

Q: Who has the hardest shot in the league?

A: [Vincent] Lecavalier -- he has a really hard shot. So does Sheldon Souray and [Zdeno] Chara. Those guys have the hardest shots.

Q: Where's the worst spot to be hit, and what does that feel like when the puck catches you?

A: You're happy you stopped it, but it hurts. The worst place is the shoulder, between the pads; your hands feel numb for a while after that. It's hard to explain the feeling, but you get used to it, and get ready for the next shot.

Q: People think hockey goalies are some of the craziest athletes in the world. How do you explain standing there while brutally strong guys fire galvanized rubber at you?

A: I guess there are easy jobs out there. You definitely need to have a different attitude to do what we do. I don't think we're crazy. I think the players out there blocking shots with their equipment are a little crazier. If you have never played goalie, it would seem crazy, but once you try it, the puck looks different coming out you; it doesn't look that bad.

Q: If you were the GM of the Wild, how would you deal with the pending Marian Gaborik contract talks?

A: [Laughs] I haven't thought about it. It can't be easy for either one to resolve the situation, but it's out of my hands. So it's probably pretty good I'm not the GM and [don't] have to worry about it.

Q: How often do you get confused with the other Nicklas Backstrom, who plays for the Capitals?

A: Not too often. Back home this summer, I did receive some of his mail. Once in a while, I get fans sending me his cards to autograph. And sometimes, in the paper, I am listed as Swedish, which he is, so I don't know if I should take that as an insult [laughs].

Q: Who is the biggest pest in the league, a guy who is always getting in your crease and causing trouble?

A: Most of the players respect the goalies; they are pretty good at knowing where to draw the line. But Holmstrom in Detroit is really good at that. There's a fine line; he's pretty close to being in the crease all the time, but it's so close, it's hard to tell if he's in the crease or not. He's very good at what he does. He's a tough player for a goalie to deal with.

Q: Who's the greatest Finnish-born player ever, Teemu Selanne or Jari Kurri?

A: [Pause] That's like the Crosby and Ovechkin question. Two great players, so it's hard to choose. But I may go with Kurri, because he was back in the 1980s, when it was still tough for Europeans to come here and succeed. He was the first Finnish player to come here and play at such a high level, and he opened the door for the rest of the Finnish players, so I will go with Kurri. And he won four Cups with the Oilers, so he's the guy.

Q: The Wild are off to a great start. Realistically, what is the team's goal this season?

A: We want to get better every night. We have a lot of new guys in the locker room, so there are a lot of things still to learn. And we have a lot of young players, too. Every time you go into the season, you want to get to the playoffs -- that's the first goal. After that, you want to get to the Cup. You have to have those dreams. It's a tough road. It will take a lot of luck, heart and hard work to get there, but that's always the dream, to get there one day.

ESPN reporter David Amber is a contributor to ESPN.com.

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