Josh Harding came a long way to earn shutout, but wouldn't take credit
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild were already out-shooting the Predators by an impressive margin when a rising dump-in by Nashville's Gabriel Bourque smacked Wild star defenseman Jonas Brodin square in the face.
Brodin left a bloody patch of ice in front of the Wild bench, was helped down the tunnel and eventually to a St. Paul hospital, not to return. The Wild players who remained were peppering Predators goalie Pekka Rinne but not scoring, a common theme for a team which just returned from a four-game road trip sporting a 1-2-1 record, and having scored five goals, total, in that quartet.
For Harding especially, it's been nearly a year since he went public with his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. There was a lengthy lockout. There was a rough start to last season which had him spending many nights in the pressbox, in a suit and tie, and working with doctors to adjust his medication. There was the emergency duty in the playoffs, when Niklas Backstrom was injured just minutes before the first game against Chicago. There was no stirring playoff series win, but a Masterton Trophy for Harding when the season was done.
Backstrom was the clear number one again this season, but was hurt a few weeks ago in Nashville, putting Harding back into the primary position between the pipes. In that role, all he's done is post a 4-2-1 record as a starter, grab the NHL's top goals-against average - a paltry 0.96 - and post his first shutout of the season on Tuesday. Although don't ask him to talk about his health ("No comment," was the quick answer) or to claim responsibility for the zero on Nashville's side of the scoreboard in the Wild's 2-0 win.
"I can't take credit for this one. If you watch the replays or watch the whole game over again, you can't say enough about what the D-men did and what the forwards did," Harding said. "That was as sound a game as far as breaking the puck out in front of the net, blocking shots, good sticks. This isn't me. This is for sure a team shutout."
To be sure, Nashville sported a Josh Freeman-quality offense on Tuesday, looking tired as they played the third of three consecutive road games, and managing just 16 shots on goal. Their previous season low was 25. But Yeo feels that sometimes, games like that with little offensive flow are harder on a goalie than, for example, the playoff games last April, when the Blackhawks repeatedly fired pucks by the dozen at Harding en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
"These aren't easy games to play," Yeo said. "There aren't a lot of quality chances or pucks to the net so for him to stay focused when there's not much going on and all of a sudden they get a breakaway in the third period, and he makes a huge save there. It's not always about the number of chances, but about him staying focused and him staying ready. I was really impressed with his game."
In the other locker room, there was dejection and resignation from a Predators team that admittedly looked tired, and was beaten up in more ways that one. Bad blood is already building between these two new Central Division rivals. It started in that Oct. 14 game in Nashville - a 3-2 Predators win in which Ryan Suter was loudly booed every time he touched the puck - and continued on Tuesday when both Zenon Konopka and Nate Prosser got fighting majors for the Wild, and many words were exchanged, starting in warmups.
"(Prosser) did a good job and I thought Zenon did a good job of setting the tone early," said Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, who assisted on Justin Fontaine's game-winner. "Just to let them know that we're coming back to our building and it's not going to be an easy night."
The stats made it look like an easy night for Harding, but with just one goal of support until Jason Pominville's empty-netter, former Wild forward Matt Cullen nearly tied the game for Nashville in the final minutes during a scramble in front of the Minnesota net. Harding, with help turned it aside, which surprised nobody in either locker room.
"I couldn't be happier for Josh," Cullen said. "He's a good friend and great person. It's great to see him playing so well. Obviously I wish he hadn't played so well tonight, but he deserves everything he gets."
Harding's past year is a great story. But he'd rather just be known as a great goalie.