ST. PAUL, Minn. — The injuries are starting to pile up for the Minnesota Wild. This time, it’s the NHL’s hottest goalie who was dinged up.
Wild goalie Josh Harding left Thursday’s 3-1 win against Carolina after two periods with an injury. Harding appeared to tweak something during the second period but remained in the game for the rest of the period. He was replaced by Niklas Backstrom — Minnesota’s starter at the beginning of the season — for the third period.
Head coach Mike Yeo didn’t have much of an update after the game and only classified it as a “lower body” injury for Harding. But Yeo and the rest of the Wild could notice Harding grimacing late in the second period.
“You could see it a little bit,” Yeo said. “I haven’t talked to the trainers yet. I have no idea on the severity of it.”
Harding seemed to be favoring his left leg after giving up a power play goal to Alexander Semin with 6:01 to play in the second period. Despite the apparent injury, Yeo kept Harding in the game for the remainder of the period.
“I’m not going to pull him in that situation,” Yeo said. “You’ve got to trust your goalie that he’s going to let you know.”
Before the injury, Harding stopped 20 of the 21 Carolina shots he faced, bringing his goals-against average to 1.00 and his save percentage to .953. Harding was given an opportunity for an extended stint as the starter after Backstrom strained his knee on Oct. 8 against Nashville. With Thursday’s win, Harding improved to 5-2-1 to continue his impressive play early in the season.
Now, though, the Wild might be without one of the NHL’s hottest goalies, at least for the immediate future. But Minnesota feels equally confident with Backstrom in net, as was the case Thursday. Backstrom stopped all seven shots the Hurricanes fired at him in the third period to help the Wild cling to a one-goal lead before Dany Heatley’s empty-netter in the final minute sealed the win.
“We’re comfortable with him,” said Wild forward Zach Parise, who notched Minnesota’s second goal in the first period. “He’s been our starter for a long time, so we’re very comfortable with both of them. It didn’t really change our mindset.”
Harding wasn’t the only starting goalie knocked out of Thursday’s game. Carolina netminder Cam Ward exited just 2:07 into the first period and was replaced by Justin Peters, who made his season debut. Before the game ended, the Hurricanes announced that Ward will be sidelined three to four weeks with a lower body injury.
Carolina wasn’t able to take advantage of Minnesota’s backup goalie, but the Wild did so against the Hurricanes. The first two shots Peters saw in the first period were goals as Minnesota took an early 2-0 lead. Nino Niederreiter scored a power play goal from the slot thanks to a nifty no-look pass from Mikael Granlund behind the net. Later in the first, Parise beat Peters after Jared Spurgeon’s initial shot hit the crossbar.
“You want to get the pucks to the net as quick as you can,” Niederreiter said of testing Peters early. “We did that. We scored on both shots he got. It was big for us. It wasn’t the best game we’ve played. We have to learn from it, but we still found a way to win the game.”
Now Minnesota might have to find a way to win without Harding in net. Backstrom said he found out with about six minutes remaining in the second intermission that he would be replacing Harding for the third period. Backstrom’s knee still isn’t 100 percent, but the adrenaline kicked in as he held Carolina scoreless for the final period.
“You have to be ready no matter what happens,” said Backstrom after playing in his first game in more than two weeks. “It’s always a difference between practice and games. Even if you try to push it in practice, it’s still practice. In the game, it’s where you find out where you are and how it feels because there you react. You just have to push and don’t hold back.”
Backstrom wasn’t tested a ton in the third period, but he did see a few shots early after Carolina went on the power play five minutes into the period. Backstrom made a few saves on the penalty kill to preserve the one-goal lead.
After what he saw on Thursday, Yeo believes Backstrom is ready to get back in net on a consistent basis for the Wild.
“I thought that he played great in this game, coming in in a tough situation,” Yeo said. “I thought he looked really good. But when you’ve been off like he’s been off, the most important thing for him right now is tomorrow’s practice.”