Panthers-Wild Preview

The Associated Press

One of the few losses for Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding this season came against the lowly Florida Panthers.

Harding will start Friday night when the Wild look to avenge that defeat and hand the Panthers a ninth straight road loss.

Minnesota (11-4-4) has been led all season by Harding, who is 10-2-2 with an NHL-best 1.21 goals-against average.

Harding did not start Wednesday due to an illness, but was forced into action when Niklas Backstrom exited in the first period with an upper-body injury. He finished up by stopping 19 of 20 shots and both shootout attempts by Toronto in a 2-1 victory, Minnesota's fourth straight at home.

Coach Mike Yeo said that Backstrom will not dress Friday and Harding will get the nod, although he didn't practice Thursday.

"(Harding) is feeling better today, just want to rest his legs for tomorrow," Yeo said.

Harding's lone career start against the Panthers (4-11-4) was a 2-1 shootout loss Oct. 19 in which he stopped 22 shots.

That game marked the last victory by Florida before it ended an 0-5-4 slide by rallying from two goals down for a surprising 3-2 home win over league-leading Anaheim on Tuesday. It was the Panthers' first victory in three games under coach Peter Horachek, who took over when Kevin Dineen was fired last Friday.

Tim Thomas, who bested Harding in last month's meeting, had 32 saves against the Ducks.

''I didn't know how confident to feel that we could come back against a really good team,'' he said. ''But in the second period, it started to come together for all of us, myself included. It was a real great effort after that.''

Scottie Upshall had a goal and an assist for his second multi-point effort. Horachek believes he can get more out of the underachieving forward, a first-round pick by Nashville in 2002 when the Panthers coach was an assistant with the Predators.

"He's a talented young man and he has not been a problem," Horachek said.

The Panthers posted a season-opening 4-2 win at Dallas on Oct. 3 before going 0-7-1 in their next eight on the road ahead of this five-game trip.

"Getting on the road a lot of times, you know, the guys go out to eat together and sometimes that's good," Horachek said. "For me, I just got here on the road so I've been home for like two days so I'm going back again. So getting the mindset, getting everybody playing together, feeling good, getting that win was important to get that pressure off them from the losses."

Yeo has been forced to defend his use of defenseman Ryan Suter, who leads the NHL in average ice time at 29:44. Suter, who also played at Nashville when Horachek was there, has logged over 108 minutes over the last three games - all going to a shootout.

"These are close games, they are one-goal games," Yeo said. "He's playing well when the game's on the line, there's two points on the line. Who are you going to put out there? He's the guy."

The Panthers own one of the league's worst power plays at 9.1 percent while the Wild have been poor on the penalty kill at 77.8 percent.

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