The Minnesota Wild’s goaltending situation has been anything but stable this season. In addition to the nagging injuries and poor play surrounding Niklas Backstrom, backup goalie Josh Harding has spent most of the season on the shelf as doctors continue to find ways to treat his multiple sclerosis.
Drafted 38th overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Harding was all but guaranteed to be the Wild’s franchise goaltender of the future. However, with Dwayne Roloson traded to the Edmonton Oilers, and Manny Fernandez down and out with an injury, it was Backstrom–an undrafted free agent signing out of Finland–who stepped in and stole the starting role right out from underneath Harding’s pads. Even with MS, Harding took the crease by storm this season, notching an 18-7-3 record, a .933 save percentage and three shutouts. His 1.65 goals against average still leads all NHL goaltenders this season, despite the fact Harding hasn’t played a game since December 31st.
With injuries to both goalies, rookie Darcy Kuemper has stepped in almost flawlessly as the team’s new No. 1 goaltender, and former Phoenix and Philadelphia starter Ilya Bryzgalov was acquired the day before the trade deadline as extra insurance. Today, however, both Harding and Backstrom took to the ice–Harding in sweats and Backstrom in pads. For Harding to be skating, let alone at the rink, it’s a good sign he’s feeling a lot better.
“I had heard how much better he was doing. And when I got a chance to talk to him this morning, you could see it,” said Wild head coach Mike Yeo when asked about Harding. “You could see it in his face, you could see the relief. You could just see he’s in a much better place right now.”
Harding still has a long, long way to go before he’s even ready for practice, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Backstrom, on the other hand, is struggling to come to terms with being shut down by the team.
“I know that he’s still not feeling great, so he’s going out there and keeping sharp just in case he can come back,” said Yeo.
Having dealt with a lingering abdominal strain dating all the way back to the latter part of last season, it’s clear Backstrom hasn’t been healthy and definitely hasn’t been in peak form. But, it’s hard to keep a good man down, and if stopping a few practice pucks is all it takes to keep his morale up, by all means let him stop a few shots.
It’s still the Kuemper/Bryzgalov show, but the potential return of Harding, and even Backstrom, could make for an interesting situation between the pipes in St. Paul.