Josh Harding appears to be closing in on a return to the Wild net.
Coach Mike Yeo wouldn’t confirm if that would occur Sunday night when the Wild opens a four-game homestand against the New York Islanders, but after Saturday’s practice, the Wild goalie certainly sounded like he’s ready to start. At the very least, Harding will dress because the Wild reassigned Johan Gustafsson after Harding spent every moment of Saturday’s practice in goal.
“Obviously you don’t like watching games, so I’d like to get back out there as soon as possible and help the team out if I can,” Harding said. “I felt better [Saturday]. I felt [Friday], first day for awhile, just seeing the puck and I was trying to be clean out there and I didn’t think I was. I thought today was a lot better.”
Harding missed the past four games because of a scheduled alteration to his treatment for multiple sclerosis. He called it minor and said, “It’s something that has to be done.”
The last Harding was seen, he made 29 saves in a shootout victory over Vancouver on Dec. 17. He then missed the Wild’s four-game road trip — all losses, with the team being outscored 19-8 and sinking to ninth in the Western Conference.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Harding said. “It’s frustrating for everybody in here. We’re a team. We win as a team, we lose as a team and whether you’re not playing or you’re playing, you’re a part of it. But the only bad thing about not being with the team is you feel kind of helpless. You want to be there for the guys.”
Harding is 18-5-3 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. Niklas Backstrom gave up 17 goals in the four starts and is now 2-9-2 with a 3.32 goals-against average and .893 save percentage.
In Harding’s 18 wins, the Wild has allowed 25.3 shots per game. In Backstrom’s 13 decisions, it has allowed 32.3. He has allowed three or more goals in his past six starts.
Asked if the Wild seems to be more confident in front of Harding, Yeo said, “I don’t want to start painting that picture. I will say that, especially lately, I don’t think we’ve played nearly well enough in front of Back. And we’ve got to fix that.”
Nino Niederreiter, a fourth-liner for much of his time with the New York Islanders, will play the team he asked to be traded from for the first time Sunday as a first-line left wing alongside Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle.
He said it would be a special game, but “we’re struggling and the most important thing is for us to get a win and for me to take it like every other game.”
He has six goals and 11 assists in 40 games for the Wild after two goals and one assist in 64 games for the Islanders. He is also second on the Wild with 91 hits.
“If he’s going to play with Mikko and Charlie, he’s got a find a way to get in situations and areas and create some plays,” Yeo said.
Niederreiter is taking the spot of Zach Parise, who was placed on injured reserve Saturday because of an apparent foot injury.
“He wants to be in the lineup,” Yeo said. “Hopefully everyday he gets his rest is a day we get closer to him coming back. He wants to get on the ice and he wants to help the team.”