The Minnesota Wild doesn’t usually see a lot of postseason individual player awards, but goalie Josh Harding has a very real chance of winning the Masterton for a second straight season.
After being diagnosed in the fall of 2012 with Multiple Sclerosis, Harding would play just five games of the lockout-shortened season last year, going 1-1-0 along with a 3.24 goals against average, a .863 save percentage and a shutout before the MS put him on the shelf for months. He would return for the postseason, and it was a good thing, because No. 1 goalie Niklas Backstrom was down and out before the puck officially dropped on the first game of Minnesota’s short and sweet series with the eventual Stanley Cup champs. Still, Harding was impressive for most of the series, going 1-4-0 with a 2.94 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. At the end of season press scrum, he expressed his continued desire to play, saying that he’d like to play all 82 games in 2013-14. Harding would eventually go on to win the 2012-13 Masterton for exemplifying perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
While 82 was a stretch, Hards did cement himself as the team’s new No. 1 netminder out of the gate this year with an 18-7-3 record, a still league-best 1.65 goals against average, a still league-best .933 save percentage and three shutouts. It was nothing short of outstanding, and definitely the continuation of the feel-good story that began back in May.
Then reality hit. Harding began to have more issues with the medication used to treat his MS. He was held out of a game against Winnipeg in December as just a precaution while he and the doctors worked to fine tune things. Harding played his last game of the regular season on December 31st, a home loss to St. Louis in which he made 21 saves on 23 shots.
Minnesota suddenly found itself scrambling with what used to be its strongest asset now in complete chaos. Hards was out. Backstrom’s play, for the most part, wasn’t up to snuff and he was dealing with a nagging abdominal strain dating back to last season. The Wild was forced to call up the franchise’s likely future face of the position in hulking 6’5″ rookie netminder Darcy Kuemper–a notion that raised several concerns after his poor performance in previous call-ups.
Fortunately, Kuemper is a pro, and played like it, too. In 26 games, the goalie nicknamed “The Kuemperor” has posted a solid 12-8-4 record, a 2.43 goals against average, a .915 save percentage and two shutouts. Yes, the future looked in Minnesota, and still does. But then Kuemps goes down with a hand/forearm injury and another goalie is forced into the No. 1 role–a beauty named Ilya Bryzgalov.
Love him or hate him, and–honestly–I don’t know how anyone could hate this guy, Bryz has done amazing things for this club in the 11 games he’s played. After a 5-8-5 season in 20 games with Edmonton, the jovial Russian has been nothing short of a Godsend for the Wild, going 7-0-3 with a 1.78 goals against average, a .923 save percentage and three shutouts in the process of lifting Minnesota into the postseason for the second straight year.
With playoffs assured, Bryzgalov may be getting some reinforcements. Harding has made dramatic improvements in his condition and has been skating and practicing with the team. Kuemper is also said to be close to ready for the playoffs when the time finally arrives. In the playoffs, goaltending can make or break a team. After last year’s fiasco, if Harding and Kuemper can get healthy and back to form in a quick enough fashion, Minnesota could have the deepest net of the postseason.
Bryzgalov’s arrival may have lifted Minnesota into the postseason, but it was Harding’s MVP-like first half of the season that enabled him to do so in the first place. As it is, Harding is a shoe-in for his second straight Masterton, but he’s got his eyes on another prize–the Stanley Cup. But the Cup alone is not enough. Harding won’t rest until he leads Minnesota to a championship as the franchise No. 1 goaltender he was drafted to be, regardless of whether or not he has MS. Now that’s what I call exemplifying perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.