What’s a good playoff series without a little drama? Well, it isn’t Minnesota’s Round One series with the Chicago Blackhawks, that’s for sure. According to Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo, Minnesota could be faced with a dilemma in goal for tonight’s must-win game against the best team in the National Hockey League.
As Wild fans know, Josh Harding did not play in the second or third periods of Minnesota’s 3-0 Game Four loss on home ice after being run into by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Rookie Darcy Kuemper was forced into his first taste of NHL playoff action and normal Minnesota Wild No. 1 netminder Niklas Backstrom suited up to back him up on the bench. Backstrom, who was originally slated to start Game One, endured an injury of his own in warm-ups just minutes before Minnesota was to play their first playoff game in five years. Harding, who has struggled this season with MS, stepped in and didn’t miss a beat until being injured in Game Four.
With their backs against the wall, both Harding and Backstrom appeared to struggle in today’s pregame skate. At that point, it was beginning to look like anyone of Minnesota’s three goalies could get the start. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo had a good long talk with both Harding and Backstrom, and their coach Bob Mason, before finally coming to a decision—Harding will start and Kuemper will back him up.
“We don’t know how he feels, but you have to trust him, and he says that he is good to go and there was absolutely no doubt about it, so that’s what we were looking for,” Yeo said when asked about Harding. “You don’t know what we were talking about,” he added with a smile. “I think we might have been talking about what we were having for lunch today.”
“This is what we’ve been dealt,” he then said, getting back to business. “But we were able to figure it out and now we should push all that stuff behind us. Bottom line is we’ve got 20 guys going into the game. No excuses whatsoever on our part. You’re in the lineup, you’re there for a reason, and we’ve got a group that is more than capable of winning this hockey game tonight.”
“It’s too bad you have to deal with [the goaltending situation],” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. “There’s so many distractions already. For us, we know whoever’s in net, we have to play hard and play our best if we want to win this game tonight. That’s been our attitude all year. It’s just someone different in net. Obviously it’s not Backy, who’s been there all year. Whoever it is, we have to go out and defend well and play in the offensive zone.”
The Minnesota Wild franchise does have a history of winning must-win games, going 7-3, including coming back from 3-1 deficits and beating both the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks in their miracle run to the 2003 Western Conference Finals. They’ll need everything they can get from their goaltending to ensure another comeback.
“If we can win this game, obviously we’d still be behind, some of the pressure would shift,” said Yeo. “We have to have a good focus of how to make that happen. Game 3, we knew without a doubt we had to win that game, and we played our best game of the series. Game 48, we knew we had to win that hockey game and we were able to go out and perform. Hopefully we can draw upon that.”
Wild fans are counting on it, even if it just means one more electrifying playoff game at the Xcel Energy Center.