Mikael Backlund's resurgence has been key to Flames' playoff hopes

CBC

Mikael Backlund is a happy guy these days for reasons greater than his recent torrent of goals and assists for the Calgary Flames.

Daughter Tillie is 10 months old, and she recently celebrated an unofficial milestone of significance to Backlund and his wife, Frida.

"Mid-January, she started to sleep a little longer," the 30-year-old centre said with a wide smile. "So that definitely has been a good switch.

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"Getting up at 6:30 a.m. or 7,  instead of 5:30, it's definitely a lot nicer."

Both on and off the ice, Backlund looks rested, confident and content — which is much different than he seemed during the first half of the season.

Shuffled from centre to the wing, Backlund struggled with just four goals and 21 points before the Christmas break.

His resurgence of late — including nine goals and 19 points in the month of February — is one of the main reasons the Flames (34-26-7) are still in the thick of the NHL Western Conference playoff race.

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The Flames lack the star power of Edmonton (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), Vancouver (Elias Pettersson) or Colorado (Nathan MacKinnon.) Their playoff hopes rest on the depth in the forward group and, when healthy, the back end.

Calgary's No. 1 line features Sean Monahan between Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, But since the all-star break, Backlund has centred arguably Calgary's best trio between Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane.

On the team's recent five-game eastern road swing, Backlund collected three goals and eight points.

"The past few weeks, he's been our best player," Tkachuk said. "He's just such a smart player and easy to play with."

The longest-serving Flame after captain Mark Giordano, Backlund finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting in 2016-17 for the league's top defensive forward.

Head coach Geoff Ward credits Backlund's renewed commitment to all-around hockey as the main reason for such a stark turnaround.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

"I think he's made a decision that he's going to be a more complete player in all three zones," Ward said. "I think he's made a decision he's going to be harder to play against.

"That's giving him an awful lot of more opportunities to play with the puck."

The Flames will need him to seize those opportunities with time running out to claim points in the tight Pacific Division. Calgary sits in third place — five points back of second-place Edmonton and only one point ahead of Vancouver, with the Canucks having two games in hand.

Next up are games against Columbus, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

"It's a different mindset compared to last season when we knew we were in the playoffs for sure and that makes each game more important for us," said Backlund, who is fifth in team scoring with 15 goals and 42 points. "Everyone in the room is prepared to work hard and grind out some wins.

"We have to be more desperate this time around. We don't know what's in store for us and nothing is guaranteed. It's all in our hands to decide our own fate."

Through the first half of the season, Backlund constantly reminded himself that he almost always struggles before the calendar flips to January. And his career stats back that up — even though fellow Swede, defenceman Rasmus Andersson, playfully taunted Backlund that his best years were behind him.

"Razzy told me I wasn't going to score 20 goals this season," Backlund said. "I told him, 'Just wait and see.'

"In the fall, I just told myself I know I'm a second-half player. That's what I would tell myself if pucks didn't go in or if I didn't play the way I wanted."

Then there's Frida and Tillie. In his younger days, Backlund could go back to his apartment and stew over what went wrong in a game.

The realities of his new life make that nearly impossible — and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's easier to put hockey aside when I get home," he said. "When I get home, I don't think about it as much. It's a great distraction.

"It's not that I couldn't relax before, but being a dad has made me realize the outside world — my life outside of hockey — is so important."

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