For five seasons, Niklas Backstrom was teammates with enforcer Derek Boogaard. So it stood to reason that Backstrom and the rest of the Minnesota Wild would face a unique challenge on Sunday night against the Calgary Flames, which was Derek Boogaard Tribute Night at the Xcel Energy Center.
After an 11-minute presentation honoring the former Wild skater, who died on May 13 from a fatal cocktail of painkillers and alcohol, Minnesota went to the ice hoping to do Boogaard's memory proud and shake off a tough loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Friday. Instead, Backstrom lasted less than nine minutes in Minnesota's 5-2 defeat.
The Wild actually got on the board first -- drawing a penalty on Mark Giordano that led to a power play goal from Cal Clutterbuck -- but couldn't do much else the rest of the way. Backstrom stopped just five of eight shots in the first period before Josh Harding took over for the remaining 51-plus minutes.
Backstrom, whose shortest career start lasted just 80 seconds when he allowed two goals to the Flames during his rookie season on March 29, 2007, missed Wednesday's game when he became a father. He didn't start upon his return Friday, but wouldn't blame rust or his emotions for Sunday's struggles.
"I have to find a way to stop them one way or another," Backstrom said. "You have to find a way to play. But you have to say, it was tough."
Backstrom choked up a bit upon the last line, responding to the impact of the Boogaard tribute.
Xcel Energy Center was rife with emotion during the pregame ceremony, which had the crowd of 16,864 raining boos for a final time, at least in this nostalgic context.
For five seasons it was a familiar call in Minnesota. Every time Boogaard made his presence known on the ice, the fan-favorite was serenaded with a chorus of boos: a term of endearment invoking the first syllable of his last name rather than a protest of his mediocre skating ability and limited skill set.
The presentation honoring Boogaard began with a brief introduction and highlight video, which was watched primarily in silence but included some "oohs" on a couple big hits, laughter when Boogaard was shown smiling as Columbus' Jody Shelley tried to pick a fight with him, and cheers when Boogaard's lone goal as a member of the New York Rangers was shown.
The goal, scored November 9 against Washington, was Boogaard's third and final career tally in 277 NHL games, and first since scoring two in his rookie campaign with the Wild.
The tribute video featured comments from several NHL players, including current teammates Nick Schultz and Harding, and former teammates Marian Gaborik and Brent Burns.
Gaborik, whom "the Boogeyman" protected throughout his career, called Boogaard one of his best friends. But Burns perhaps best described the feeling of skating with Boogaard: "He's there for you. He stepped in for you. You feel protected."
His former teammates appreciated Boogaard playing big brother, but could only reciprocate with condolences and shared embraces with the Boogaard family on Sunday as they once again mourned a loss felt not only around hockey, but among the thousands he touched through his charitable endeavors.
The choking silence in Xcel Energy Center as Schultz and Harding handed the family flowers and led a greeting procession was mercifully broken by a fan shouting "we love you Boogey," and a thankful crowd responding with a loud ovation.
From there, it was up to the Wild to flip the switch and be ready to play a division game. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the effort wasn't there.
Neither Mikko Koivu or coach Mike Yeo would use the Boogaard tribute as an excuse for the sloppy performance.
"I don't think it was that at all," Yeo said. "We played like we were afraid to lose, afraid to make a play. We didn't stay true to who we are and what we have to be as a team."
In that respect, the Wild need to take a page from their former teammate's approach to hockey. In his five years with Minnesota, Boogaard never displayed an iota of fear. He simply worked hard and did whatever was needed from him while on the ice.
Boogaard made the most of the talent he had in the too little time he was afforded to use it. It's now up to Backstrom and company to summon some of Boogaard's attitude to keep the last two games from spiraling into something worse.