ST. PAUL, Minn. — Niklas Backstrom returned to the Minnesota Wild this offseason, re-signing with the only NHL team he’s known for three years to provide stability at the goaltender position.
Josh Harding was the semi-unknown at the position. Harding missed most of last season to deal with multiple sclerosis and worked during the offseason to be ready for Minnesota in 2013-14 as the backup to Backstrom.
Two months into the season, Harding has played in all but six games for the Wild, who have allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the NHL at 2.17 per game. Backstrom started the season’s first two games and then went out with an injury in the third game and in entered Harding.
Minnesota wouldn’t be where it is without Harding.
Harding posted his third shutout of the season Monday, making 21 saves in a 2-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers. With the win, Harding already set a career-high for wins in a season as he moved to 14-4-3 in 22 games this year. Harding’s previous high was in 2011-12 when he played a total of 34 games all season and went 13-12-4.
“I’d like for him to make it really tough for him to say that next year by finishing it off,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said of Harding setting a career-high in wins Monday. “We’ve got a long season here left, and obviously we’ve been challenged early in the year with (Backstrom) as far as him being hurt. Very few games has he been healthy for us, and Josh has really allowed us to be where we’re at right now.
“If it wasn’t for him, we’d be in a lot of trouble. He’s played some great hockey, and I think all his teammates recognize that.”
The rest of the league might be starting to recognize Harding’s accomplishments as well. Monday was the 10th shutout of his career and he’s tied for the most among NHL goaltenders in shutouts this season.
Harding is tied for third in the league with his 14 wins. He owns the best goals-against average for anyone with at least five games played with a 1.45 GAA and his .939 save percentage is third in the league for goaltenders with at least five games played.
He admitted after Monday’s game he didn’t envision this start for himself personally, but he isn’t letting himself think about any career bests at this point in the season.
“Maybe not this, but right now there’s no time to look at that,” Harding said of his start. “I say that quite a bit, but it’s so true. You can’t look back … otherwise it’s going to come back to haunt you. No, just having fun with it, trying to keep the guys in it every night.”
Minnesota returned to more of its tighter, defensive play as a team Monday and when Jason Pominville scored 3 minutes, 52 seconds into the third period, it was the first time in eight games the Wild scored first. Minnesota outshot Philadelpia 15-10 through the first two periods. Charlie Coyle followed Pominville’s goal with another 57 seconds later and Harding did the rest.
Harding made a few big saves in the period, particularly on a Philadelphia power-play three minutes after Coyle’s goal.
Philadelphia forward Jakub Voracek was wide open after a cross-ice pass and Harding went diving across the crease to knock the puck away.
“Desperation,” Harding said of the play. “You see an empty net and you see a guy with the puck and just throw your body over and it hit me. Fortunately it stayed out. It’s just one of those ones where, no skill to that one, just got lucky.”
Harding wasn’t sure how he blocked it, was just grateful he did.
“I don’t know, but my finger hurt so I’m thinking I either landed on it or got it,” Harding said.
However he makes the stops, Harding’s play and Minnesota’s strong defensive game is giving the team confidence.
“You look at tonight, we get two and we win a game,” Pominville said. “Overall we’re a really solid defensive team and we might not need three or four to win a game. We just need a couple.”
Having Harding in net has helped as Backstrom has dealt with injuries.
“He’s been obviously great. I think the numbers show that,” Mikko Koivu said. “But I think he’s just been calm and the way he plays the puck, there’s not a lot of rebounds either. It’s a good sign for us obviously to have two good goaltenders. Obviously it gives you the confidence as a team and playing in front of him. Like I said, just huge knowing the way he’s been playing. I think the biggest thing is to get the confidence and feeling every night before the game.”