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CHICAGO — Josh Harding did not want sympathy. He did not want to be an inspiration.
He wanted to win.
To him, it didn’t matter that he had multiple sclerosis, that he hadn’t started in two months, that he had appeared in only two games since, that he was pressed into service minutes before the playoff opener, or that he had made 35 saves and allowed only one goal against the top team in the NHL through 76 minutes and 34 seconds Tuesday night.
What mattered was this: The Minnesota Wild lost.
Harding couldn’t stop the Chicago Blackhawks’ Bryan Bickell from sliding the puck into the net 16:35 into overtime, handing the Wild a 2-1 defeat. As “Chelsea Dagger” played and the United Center celebrated, Harding trudged to the dressing room, teammates patting his head. As he sat at his stall peeling off his equipment, he refused to dwell on his disease or his journey.
“No comment,” he said again and again.
No way would he find a moral victory in this.
“Good for him,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo. “I think we should respect that. Even I have to catch myself sometimes. But the reality is, he’s part of our team. He’s a hockey player, and that’s the way he wants to be treated.”
Minnesota had every excuse entering this series. The Wild struggled down the stretch and earned the eighth seed in the West thanks to a tiebreaker; the Blackhawks won the Presidents’ Trophy with the NHL’s best regular-season record. The Wild had 11 guys with no playoff experience; the Blackhawks had one. The Wild hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008; the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Then, before Game 1 even began, starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom got hurt. He made a save during warm-ups, reached for a rebound and stayed on all fours. He had to be helped off the ice and into the dressing room.
“You could tell that obviously something was wrong,” Harding said.
Harding had every excuse entering this game. In the fall, he felt dizzy, saw black spots and felt numbness in his right leg. A doctor discovered lesions on his brain and diagnosed MS, an incurable disease that attacks the nervous system – obviously critical for an NHL goaltender.
In his first start after the lockout, Harding shut out the Dallas Stars, 1-0. But in his next start, he allowed five goals. And in his next start, he was yanked after allowing two goals in 6:35 – against the Blackhawks.
He didn’t start again. He made a relief appearance Feb. 7, told the Wild he felt “off” when he was scheduled to start Feb. 12 and took a break as doctors adjusted his medication. He came back again, only to allow three goals in a relief appearance April 26.
His regular-season totals: five games, three starts, 1-1-0 record, 3.24 goals-against average, .863 save percentage.
But Harding never made excuses when he received his MS diagnosis. He went public with the news during the lockout so it wouldn’t distract the team when the season started, and he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune he would not let MS come between him and his goals.
“I know what my overall goal is to be, and that’s a No. 1 goalie of the Minnesota Wild and to win a Stanley Cup here,” he said then. “It would make me happy to overcome this – not just overcome this, but to really succeed with it. I don’t want people treating me different. I don’t want people feeling bad for me.”
And so Harding was not going to give the Wild another excuse Tuesday night. When he saw Backstrom down, he finished warm-ups as if he were going to start. He led the team onto the ice for the game, skated to his crease, bent over and put his head down for a bit. He steeled himself through the roar of the national anthem.
Not that he would comment about what was going through his head.
“What I do is my business,” he said.
Cal Clutterbuck gave the Wild a quick 1-0 lead, scoring a soft goal on Corey Crawford, fluttering a shot from the left wing. The Wild protected Harding so well that the Blackhawks had hardly a scoring chance – until Marian Hossa tied the game, 1-1, on the power play early in the second period.
From there, Harding traded saves with Crawford. He stopped Michael Handzus point-blank. He whipped up his glove to snare a Patrick Sharp shot. He denied Patrick Kane cutting to the net. He covered the puck in traffic. He caught a break when a whistle blew before Chicago poked in a puck. He stoned Brandon Saad once, then twice, as Jonathan Toews crashed the net. He caught another break when Hossa had him down and out and failed to lift the puck into the gaping net with Ryan Suter on him.
Then the Blackhawks caught a break. Jason Zucker, the Wild’s best forward all night, hit a crossbar in overtime. An inch, and the Wild would have won. An inch, and Bickell never would have had the chance to score.
“I’ve played goalie long enough to know that I have to prepare as a backup goaltender,” Harding said. “It’s my job to stop the puck. That’s what I had to do. To say that it’s easy … I don’t think anybody’s going to say that. The team that we played is a great team. But we’ve got to come back to work tomorrow.”
What matters now: Tomorrow.
The Wild’s next game is Friday. All Yeo would say about Backstrom was that he had a lower-body injury. Harding might have to start again. MS can wait.
“He doesn’t want it to be about him,” Clutterbuck said. “It’s about the team. If you want to talk about him, talk about his play. I think that’s a bigger story.”
Doesn’t that make it an even bigger inspiration?
“It’s hard to sit here and try to paint an accurate picture of what he’s gone through, because I have no idea,” Yeo said. “We have no idea. It’s a guy that certainly for many reasons you’re rooting for.”
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