The Minnesota Wild might finally be getting healthy at a key position— goaltender.
For the first time since Jan. 30, coach Jacques Lemaire can decide between Manny Fernandez, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on Sunday when the Wild close out a three-game road trip against the Northwest Division rival Vancouver Canucks.
All three goalies practiced Friday and Saturday, giving Lemaire an array of options for the first time in 13 games.
Fernandez, the Wild’s starter with a 22-16-1 record and 2.57 goals-against average, practiced both days and hopes to make his first start since aggravating a sprained knee in a 5-2 loss at St. Louis on Jan. 30. He originally suffered the injury on Jan. 20 in a shootout loss to Dallas.
Without the franchise’s all-time wins leader, Minnesota (36-23-6) proceeded to go 9-2-2. One of the Wild’s losses in that span was a 3-2 overtime defeat to the Canucks on Feb. 14. Backstrom made 31 saves in the loss, but allowed a goal to Sami Salo’s with 40 seconds left in the extra period.
Despite the setback, Backstrom played a key role in that stretch, going 8-2-1 with a 2.42 GAA before suffering a lower-body injury and not coming out for the second period of a 2-1 shootout loss at Calgary on Wednesday.
Harding, who was called up on Feb. 1 to backup Backstrom, replaced the Swede against the Flames and made 21 saves before losing the shootout. The 22-year-old netminder followed that up with a 30-save performance to get his second career shutout in a 5-0 win over Edmonton on Thursday.
“The chances that they got, he was just great on them,” Lemaire said of Harding. “They had the opportunities to score goals and get going, but he was there to make the big saves. It’s a good thing because we don’t have nobody else.”
Harding’s surprising play has given Lemaire yet another option in goal for a team that features one of the stingiest defensive schemes in the NHL. Minnesota’s collective 2.43 GAA ranks fourth in the league.
The Wild hopes they can continue getting solid goaltending and keep pace with the Flames and Canucks (37-22-5) in the tight Northwest Division race.
Minnesota has 78 points, one shy of co-leaders Calgary and Vancouver. The Wild, though, do have a nine-point lead over Colorado for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
On Sunday, Lemaire could opt for Fernandez, who is 4-0 with a 1.78 GAA in his last five starts against Vancouver.
Daniel Sedin scored two goals—both assisted by his twin brother Henrik— before Markus Naslund netted the game-winner with 4:14 remaining in regulation to give the Canucks a 4-3 win over Phoenix on Thursday.
“Looking over the 60 minutes we played as well as we had to but it feels good to get the two points,” Naslund said. “We made a mistake and they got up 3-2, but we slowly took over and I think we deserved to win.
“That’s the sign of a good team that can find a way to win in the tight games when you’re not starting off playing great.”
The win was Vancouver’s third in a row—all by one goal—at GM Place. The team is 20-9-2 there, with Roberto Luongo starting each contest and posting a 2.41 GAA.
Luongo, though, has struggled against the Wild with a 2-7-1 mark and 3.61 GAA in his last 10 starts.
Daniel Sedin, who leads the Canucks with 29 goals, has only managed one goal in seven games versus Minnesota.