Josh Harding delivers strong performance off bench

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s Josh Harding has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL this season, but he was supposed to have the night off Wednesday against Toronto as he was feeling under the weather.

That meant Niklas Backstrom got the start in net for the Wild, just the seventh game of the season for the veteran goalie. Backstrom’s night lasted just 8:31, however, as he took a hit to the head from Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri.

Feeling less than 100 percent, Harding filled in and once again came up huge for the Wild, who beat the Leafs 2-1 in a shootout. Harding stopped 19 of 20 shots he faced and blanked Toronto in the shootout as Minnesota improved to 11-4-4 on the season.

“I don’t think anyone can be surprised anymore with how well he’s playing. He did it again,” said Wild forward Zach Parise, who scored the equalizer late in the third period. “He made some big saves in the shootout again. It was great.”

Backstrom took a Kadri forearm to the mask during the first period and remained on the ice momentarily, sprawled on his back in the crease. He got up slowly and stayed in the game briefly but was removed in place of Harding with 9:29 to play in the first period.

A backup goalie always has to be ready, so even though Harding was under the weather, he stayed sharp mentally.

“He took a good shot,” Harding said of Backstrom. “When he got up, I thought he was going to be OK after that. They told me to get ready. As a backup, you have to do it.”

Minnesota didn’t do much in the way of retaliation after Kadri’s hit, which gave the Wild a power play opportunity. After the game, Minnesota’s players said all the right things about the hit.

“We don’t really agree with those types of hits, and that’s what I feel we’re trying to get out of the game,” said Wild winger Jason Pominville, who scored the decisive goal in the shootout. “It’s not to us to make those decisions. The league will take a look at it and go from there. It’s usually not his style of play. He’s a pretty honest player that works hard and has got talent. It was kind of surprising it came from him.”

Added Wild head coach Mike Yeo: “Obviously, you’re never a fan of that. The league’s done a good job of addressing those things so we’ll just leave it at that.”

Without any time to get loose, Harding stopped all four Maple Leafs shots he faced in the remainder of the first period. He gave up the game’s first goal on a rebound in the second as Toronto’s Mason Raymond buried a rebound on the power play for a 1-0 lead. That was the only goal Harding allowed, though, as he lowered his goals-against average to 1.21 and upped his save percentage to .948.

With Wednesday’s victory, Harding remains unbeaten at Xcel Energy Center this year — a perfect 8-0-0.

In both locker rooms, plenty of talk postgame centered around the hit that knocked Backstrom out of the game with what was only categorized by Yeo as an “upper body injury.” Making matters worse for Kadri was the fact that he later hit Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund in the face with a shoulder, earning a match penalty and an early trip to the showers.

The Wild failed to capitalize on the five-minute power play from the ensuing penalty and once again did not retaliate after Kadri’s hit, not wanting to squander the man-advantage.

“They play hard. They’re no different than anyone else. They want to mix it up after the whistles,” Parise said. “For us, we don’t bother with that. That’s not our game. I thought we did a good job of staying away from that, but at the same time stepping in when guys needed to. That’s kind of their MO. They want to get in scrums and get in things like that, but we did a good job staying away from that.”

Harding didn’t have to make a ton of saves Wednesday, but he made a few big ones when it counted most. He made a glove save to rob Raymond with under two minutes remaining in the third period to keep the game tied, and he then shut down Raymond on Toronto’s first shot of the shootout by stretching his left pad to the edge of the goal.

Thanks in part to Harding’s effort in relief, Minnesota won its second shootout in its last two games. It was Harding’s first relief appearance since Oct. 15 when he spelled Darcy Kuemper — also against Toronto.

“A tough spot when you’re not supposed to start and you come in, probably not warm and haven’t seen a shot since warmups,” Pominville said of Harding. “Even in warmups the starting goalie gets most of the shots. It was supposed to be a night off and he comes in. He once again was impressive and made some big saves and gave us a chance.”

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