ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild entered the playoffs with a starting goaltender that tied for the NHL lead in wins this season to go along with a 2.48 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
Now Minnesota isn’t sure who will be starting between the pipes when the Wild face a must-win Game 5 on Thursday night in Chicago against the top-seeded Blackhawks.
Already without starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota lost backup Josh Harding after the first period in Tuesday’s 3-0 Game 4 loss to Chicago at Xcel Energy Center. Rookie Darcy Kuemper, 23, played the final two periods on Tuesday, making his NHL playoff debut.
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With Backstrom trying to return from a lower-body injury and Harding appearing to injure his left leg, the biggest question heading into Thursday’s game for the Wild, who trail 3-1 in the series, is who will start in goal.
“You can’t worry about those things,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said about the emotional swing after seeing Harding leave Tuesday’s loss. “You take what’s given to you, and you put your head down and you get back to work.”
Kuemper, who hadn’t played an NHL game since April 4, stopped 16 of the 18 shots he faced on Tuesday. Harding, who had started all four playoff games in place of Backstrom, made five saves on the six shots he faced before leaving.
Harding, who has amazed many by having a strong series after he spent much of the season on injured reserve while dealing with a change in medication to combat his multiple sclerosis, was run into by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews during the first period. Toews went hard into Harding, who fell and had hit the goalpost with each of his legs splitting the post. Toews fell on Harding, who was slow to get up but played the remainder of the period. He was in obvious pain and was checked on by trainers during the next intermission, but he stayed in the game. Harding was seen shaking his left leg often.
“I mean, it’s frustrating,” defenseman Ryan Suter said of seeing Harding leave. “But that’s part of the game. Injuries are part of the game and that’s the bad part of the game.”
Yeo didn’t have an update on Harding’s status after the game.
Kuemper entered at the start of the second period and gave up a goal to Chicago’s Patrick Sharp on the first shot he faced.
“Yeah, it wasn’t a good goal,” Kuemper said. “It was a tough situation to go into, but no excuses. It’s not a goal I like to let in. But I just tried to, after it went in, get focused and get ready for the next shot.”
Kuemper said he didn’t find out he was going in until right before the second period because Harding was trying to see if he could return.
“Obviously I kind of had a feeling I might be going in, so I tried to focus as quick as I could,” Kuemper said. “As a backup, your job is to be ready if you’re needed. So, no excuses. I got to be focused and ready to go in there.”
Backstrom, who started 26 of the Wild’s final 27 regular-season games, was hurt in pregame warm-ups prior to Game 1 of the series leading to Harding’s string of strong games. Harding, who had played one game in the NHL since Feb. 7, allowed nine goals on 118 shots faced in the series for a .924 save percentage in Games 1-3 against Chicago, the league’s highest-scoring team in the Western Conference.
Backstrom, who was declared a scratch for the game, was in uniform and full pads on the bench in the third period. Yeo wouldn’t say if Backstrom, who’s been practicing with the team, will be able to play on Thursday.
“Again, it was quite a unique situation tonight,” Yeo said. “So, we’ll update that a little bit more tomorrow.”
The Wild now must focus on the must-win Game 5 without an idea who might start in goal.
“We can’t make any excuses here,” said captain Mikko Koivu. “We’ve got to focus on the next one and whoever is in the lineup, that’s got to be enough. But of course, you wish for a healthy lineup and hopefully the guys get better. We’re not going to start finding any excuses.”