Josh Harding was a shoo-in for the Masterton trophy last season, awarded to the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." What did he do? Oh, he just continued his NHL career despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and undergoing treatment during the season.
Yeah. That'll do it. Almost every other team's player submission should have been accompanied by the caveat, "Like, he doesn't have MS or anything but…"
But, incredible as it sounds, Harding is on track to somehow outdo last year's story.
As he said, he's done talking about his MS: "I don't want people treating me different, I don't want people feeling bad for me, I don't want people moping around." Maybe that's why he's thrust himself so forcefully into the chatter for different award this season.
Through the first two months of the 2013-14 campaign, he's this year's Vezina front-runner.
It's been a weird year for netminders so far. The top names are struggling, and some unexpected guys have risen to the top. Backups. Also-rans. Laughingstocks. A quick perusal of the league leaders in several of the most mainstream goaltending statistics yields a lot of names that few expected to be there.
Ben Scrivens is the league-leader in save percentage. Steve Mason, yes, Steve Mason is fourth in the same category. Granted, Philadelphia was bound to stumble onto a decent net minder at some point. Try every flavour in the store and you're bound to find one you like. But Mason? Who saw that coming?
Scrivens is second in goals against average as well. Cam Talbot, Henrik Lundqvist's backup in New York, is fourth. Cam Talbot, who sounds like the product of some sort of Canadian hockey name generator.
Meanwhile, Harding is tops in goals against average, second in save percentage, tied for first in shutouts, and tied for third in wins, with 14. Only Harding and Boston's Tuukka Rask are top five in all four of the major categories, and only Harding is top three in all of them.
But it's not just about numbers. It's also about this save:
Harding's play is making a huge difference in an ultra-competitive West.
The Blackhawks and Blues are running away with things in the Central, as one expected, but the division has been a tougher go than most thought. We've heard a lot about the Pacific, but I'd argue the Central is hockey's toughest right now, and Harding has been keeping the Wild in striking distance. As it stands, the club sits fourth in the division, but they're holding down the top wild card spot.
(It goes without saying that, while Harding wants to push MS talk to the background, what he's doing this year is doubly impressive because of what he was doing this time last year.)
It's still early in the season and a lot is going to change. Niklas Backstrom is going to come back from injury, for instance, and push for more ice time in the Wild crease. But with the way Harding is playing right now, I'm not sure why you'd give it to anyone else.
Same goes for the Vezina. Some of the other big names are bound to come on as the season rolls along, but Harding is driving the Vezina bus at this point.