ST. PAUL, Minn. — With San Jose annulling the Minnesota Wild attack Sunday evening, Mikko Koivu couldn’t help but fall back on knowledge of what awaited the Sharks at the Xcel Energy Center ice’s opposite end.
That’d be Josh Harding, the one-man stopping show that solidified his spot among the NHL’s present-day goaltending elite in a 3-1 Wild victory.
“The confidence, I think that’s the most important thing, when he can create that,” Koivu said of his goaltender. “You know he’s behind you. Obviously, we try to play as hard as we can and as good as we can in front of him, but at the same time, like we all see, he’s being great and is just calm.”
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Calm, even in the face of a 38-shot barrage.
Harding stopped all but one of them, a perfectly-placed Patrick Marleau rebound that cut Minnesota’s 2-0 lead in half at the third period’s 18:19 mark. But Zach Parise fired his second goal of the game into an empty net with 6 seconds to go, ensuring Harding’s outstanding evening didn’t go to waste.
The 29-year-old Saskatchewan native’s 37 saves were a season high. His team’s 13-shot accumulation was its lowest of the year — by seven tries.
Not a problem for Harding, whose league-best goals-against average dropped to 1.50.
“You kind of take it as a positive,” said Harding, who improved to 16-4-3 and moved into a tie for the second-most wins among NHL netminders. “You get to feel the puck. You know it’s gonna be coming from everywhere. I’d almost rather have those games sometimes than the 10 shots, maybe a few spread out here and there.
The win came two days after an agonizing 4-0 setback in Columbus and makes for a lot better vibes in the Wild (18-8-5) dressing room ahead of a tough, Western Conference road swing that includes a Thursday visit to San Jose.
Whoever gets the start in net can expect more of the same from San Jose (19-6-5) — which leads the NHL in shots-on-goal per game — plus some added angst over being turned away so frequently Sunday.
“We threw a lot of rubber at the other goalie,” an exasperated Marleau said, “and he was good tonight.”
Even with his comrades floundering in their offensive zone, Harding managed to turn the contest’s course after Parise tapped home a rebound off a Marco Scandella shot from the left point. That made it 1-0 Minnesota 3 minutes, 55 seconds into the second.
The shot-happy Sharks stormed right back down the ice and nearly notched an immediate equalizer when former Wild forward Brent Burns slid the puck across the goal mouth in search of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. But Harding slid to his left and managed to tip the shot wide, then sprung back to his skates and snagged Joe Pavelski’s wrister from the right slot out of midair.
Koivu beat Niemi from a similar spot on the other end moments later.
Later in the second, Harding stopped one shot with his face mask, robbed Tomas Hertl on a deflected chance and dove across the goal mouth to stymie a long attempt from Matt Irwin which Koivu tipped on its way to the crease.
That brought an often-subdued crowd of 18,411 to its feet.
“Whenever you can keep a team like that at bay,” Harding said, “you’re gonna be happy.”
He had some help. Defenseman Ryan Suter got his skate in front of a puck that bounced behind Harding with 3:20 left in the third, and Minnesota blocked 18 shots.
The Wild — who came in with a 78-percent penalty kill rate, which ranks 26th in the NHL — also milked away all four Sharks power plays and did well to pick up rebounds. That was particularly necessary in the first, when Harding left several juicy second chances on his doorstep.
“We were playing tight, we had good layers and we were tough to come through,” said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, whose team plays seven of its next eight away from St. Paul, starting with Wednesday’s tilt at Anaheim. “They battled real hard in front of Hardsy — obviously you always need your goalie to be really good in those situations — but I thought we were aggressive.”