ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s Josh Harding didn’t have much time to prepare for Tuesday’s start in Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
As a backup goalie, Harding is used to preparing as though he’ll be thrown into the fire on a moment’s notice, but Tuesday was a particularly unusual case. Starter Niklas Backstrom was injured in pregame warmups. Just minutes before the Wild’s first playoff game was about to begin, Harding finished taking the remaining shots in warmups and assumed he was starting unless someone told him otherwise.
As it turned out, Harding was brilliant despite the short notice and stopped 35 of 37 shots he faced in the Wild’s 2-1 loss at United Center. Now the question remains: Did Harding’s performance Tuesday warrant another start in Game 2 on Friday, regardless of Backstrom’s status?
“That’s not a question for me,” Harding said Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center. “That’s the coaches’ call. That’s what they’re here to do.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo said Wednesday it’s too early to tell what his goaltender situation will be Friday. Yeo called Backstrom day-to-day with what he would only classify as a “lower-body injury.” Yeo added that the team was without much of a backup plan if Harding would have gone down during Tuesday’s game.
To add insurance, Minnesota has since recalled goalie Darcy Kuemper from the AHL’s Houston Aeros. Kuemper was in St. Paul on Wednesday, although the Wild did not practice. Backstrom will be re-evaluated Thursday, Yeo said, before the team heads to Chicago for Game 2 on Friday.
Tuesday was Harding’s first start in net since Jan. 30 against Chicago, when he was pulled after allowing two goals on four shots. It’s been a tough season for Harding as he continues to deal with his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which has limited him to six games with the Wild this season. He was thrust into a big game for Minnesota last week against Edmonton when Backstrom was pulled after a rough start. Harding gave up three goals on 12 shots in the Wild’s second-last regular-season game. A victory in that game would have sealed a postseason spot for Minnesota. Instead, the Wild had to win their final game of the season to sneak into the playoffs.
If Harding gets the nod Friday, Yeo said he has complete confidence in his No. 2 goalie to do the job again.
“I was anxious for a lot of reasons to see him have a chance to bounce back after he was thrown into a tough situation in that Edmonton game,” Yeo said. “If you know Josh, he’s a competitor. I’m sure he was looking for an opportunity to get back in there, too. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting it to happen like that. You’ve got confidence in the guys that are in your room. Part of that is seeing them, the way they play, but another huge part of it is knowing their personalities and how they deal with stuff like that.”
Harding said Wednesday that he didn’t see Backstrom suffer the injury. It wasn’t until captain Mikko Koivu told Harding to get in net for the rest of warmups that Harding knew something was going on.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of emotions going through your head,” Harding said. “I’ve been a backup goalie for a bit. I know how important it is to get ready for every game. Unfortunate circumstance, but I thought that I was ready and prepared myself right.”
The Wild took an early 1-0 lead Tuesday on a goal by Cal Clutterbuck. Chicago came back to tie it on a power-play goal by Marian Hossa in the second period. Though the Blackhawks had plenty of chances to win the game in regulation, Harding stood tall and forced overtime.
On its 37th shot of the game, Chicago finally found a way to beat Harding for a second time when Bryan Bickell scored at the 16:35 mark of overtime. It’s certainly hard to fault Harding for Minnesota’s loss, especially given the circumstances of his start.
“He’s had a hard year. We all know that. He’s gone through a lot,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “We have a lot of confidence in him, and we know how good of a goalie he is. I can’t imagine what’s going through his mind at that time and in that circumstance, but I thought he rose to the occasion and played great. He really gave us a chance to win — gave us a lot of chances to win.
“I don’t know what (Backstrom’s) status is, but if it’s Josh moving forward, we have a lot of confidence in him, too.”