With shutout win, Josh Harding sets career highs but is far from done
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Admit it: a year ago, you figured Josh Harding was all done.
Last November, in the midst of an already dreary and depressing NHL lockout that wiped out half the season, the shocking news came down that Harding, a pro goalie in the prime of his career, in seemingly perfect physical shape, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Still, he found a way to deal, at least temporarily, and started the abbreviated season with the Wild, backing up Niklas Backstrom. It didn't last long.
Harding and his doctors worked to find him the right combination of medication to keep his MS at bay. Still, when the playoffs began, Harding had played in just five games, with one win. Admit it: you thought he was done.
Still, he found a way to rise to the occasion when Backstrom was hurt just minutes before the first playoff game in Chicago. Granted, Harding and the Wild went 1-4 in the playoffs, falling to the powerful Blackhawks, but not before the lightly-regarded goalie struck fear in the hearts of fans throughout Chicagoland, taking the Hawks to overtime in game one, and making 35 saves.
He was awarded the NHL's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in the off season, given for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Still, when the 2013-14 training camp began, and Harding was again slotted for the backup role, you had to think that - nice stories of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey aside - Harding's career as an everyday NHL goalie was effectively done.
On Monday night in downtown St. Paul, Harding turned aside 21 shots by the Philadelphia Flyers, winning 2-0 for his 14th victory and third shutout of the season. Both of those numbers are career highs.
While Backstrom has struggled to stay healthy, and at times struggled on the ice, Harding has assumed the role as the main man between the pipes for the Wild, making the routine saves look, well, routine, and at times serving up gems line the diving spread-out robbery of Jakub Voracek in the third period Monday that is sure to make many hockey highlight reels this week.
In other words, Harding is not done. He's far from it.
"Desperation," said Harding after the game on Monday, describing the key defensive play on a night where the Wild snapped a four-game losing streak. "You see an empty net and you see a guy with the puck and just throw your body over and it hit me. Fortunately it stayed out. It's just one of those ones where, no skill to that one, just got lucky."
The puck, rather than going in the yawning empty net, appeared to strike Harding on the blocker or the stick. He didn't provide any definitive word on what Voracek's shot hit before rebounding harmlessly to the corner of the rink.
"I don't know. But my finger hurt so I'm thinking I either landed on it or got it," Harding said.
Not far away, Backstrom prepared to head home after another night on the bench. While the normal mainstay in goal has battled injuries and put up a pedestrian 2-3-2 record in 10 appearances, Harding has taken the reins. His coaches make it clear that the primary reason for the Wild's 16-8-5 mark thus far has been the play between the pipes.
"We've got a long season here left, and obviously we've been challenged early in the year with (Backstrom) as far as him being hurt," coach Mike Yeo said. "Very few games has he been healthy for us, and Josh has really allowed us to be where we're at right now. If it wasn't for him, we'd be in a lot of trouble. He's played some great hockey, and I think all his teammates recognize that."
Harding is now 11-1-0 at home for a team that has been very, very effective on home ice. Monday, for the first time in a long time, the Wild gave their goalie a lead to work with after they were frustrated for the first 40 minutes. And when the Flyers pulled their goalie with more than three minutes left, the Wild, and Harding kept at it, sending the Flyers away empty handed. Although the winning goalie made it clear that the numbers and accolades are of little concern, especially with the season not even half over.
"Right now there's no time to look at that," Harding said. "I say that quite a bit, but it's so true. You can't look back at the future, otherwise it's going to come back to haunt you. Just having fun with it, trying to keep the guys in it every night and whenever I got called, working things out."
Career numbers have already been posted, and the Wild are in the thick of the race in a very, very tough Western Conference. It's only the first week of December.
In other words, Josh Harding isn't done. Not even close.