Since his bold admission before last season, multiple sclerosis has come to define Harding. He won the hearts of hockey fans, and the Bill Masterton Trophy for his perseverance, when he spoke about being diagnosed with the incurable autoimmune disease. How a professional goaltender could thrive with a condition that can attack the very things a goaltender needs to thrive – muscle strength, orientation and vision – was a question that fascinated us.
The Wild subtly tell media wishing to speak to Harding that MS is a subject he isn’t keen to speak about in-season, and that’s fine. Like he told the Star Tribune during his revelation last fall: "I don't want people treating me different, I don't want people feeling bad for me, I don't want people moping around. I want this to be a story where when we look back, it was a happy story."
After 14 appearances. Harding’s is one of the happiest stories of the season. He’s 9-2-2 with a stellar 1.22 goals against average and a save percentage of .947, pitching two shutouts. An injury to Niklas Backstrom opened the door for Harding; now, some are clamoring that the crease stay with Harding long-term.
“I think the team’s helped me out a lot. I don’t think it has much to do with me at all. I’m just trying to come out here, give the team a chance to win every night. You just have to be solid and make that timely save,” said Harding.
“I learned that from Backstrom over the years – make that timely save.”
The word “confidence” is thrown around by his Wild teammates when asked what the difference for Harding has been thus far this season, which sees him in a 6-0-1 streak that includes Saturday night’s 3-2 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Confidence is everything in this game. In any sport. In life. If you have confidence, you’re gong to be successful in anything you want,” said defenseman Ryan Suter.
“Confidence is a big part of it,” agreed coach Mike Yeo. “Last year it was difficult dealing with his situation. He never got a chance to get in a rhythm of any kind. He was out pretty much the whole year. But the year become, we saw him play at this level before. The great thing is that he’s able sustain it enough.”
Harding said doesn’t get an ego boost from his stats, which he says he doesn’t check. But when it’s going well, he can feel it in different facets of his game. His glove hand has always been cat-like reflexively; but when it’s going well for Harding, his puck-handling becomes just as deft.
“Being confident with the puck, coming out and making plays and getting the team going,” he said, after the Wild’s overtime loss on Washington on Nov. 7.
Harding is in one of those goalie grooves where the puck looks like a Macy’s Parade Balloon. “He sees the puck, he’s saving it. It’s a good feeling for us,” said forward Zach Parise.
But the 29-year-old goalie is quick to credit his teammates for his seeing the puck so well this season. “Whenever you can say that about a goalie the D-men and forwards are doing a good job clearing the lanes,” said Harding. “You take care of the first one; and they take care of the second one.”
Said Suter: “Our team has played really solid in front of him. We haven’t given up a lot of quality chances, and if we do, he’s here to make the save.”
Maybe this is a hot streak for the goalie or his defense or both. Maybe Harding’s incredible stats to start the season will end up unrecognizable by the end of it.
But this is what Harding’s waited for since he was drafted by Minnesota in 2002. He had chances to leave for another team, another opportunity. But he’s been steadfast about wanting to be with the Minnesota Wild, and more importantly to be the goaltender that leads them to their greatest heights.
So far, he’s inspiring their early season success. And even if his personal struggle is left unsaid, he's inspiring the rest of us, too.
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