Josh Harding has been a member of the Wild for nearly 11 years. But since revealing in November that he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the goaltender feels this season is like "a tryout."
He's trying to prove to himself, the club and everybody else that he can "still do what I've been doing all my life."
Sunday night against the Dallas Stars, Harding overcame the butterflies and the self-doubt and aced that initial test during an uplifting 1-0 blanking.
In front of an announced crowd of 18,296 at Xcel Energy Center, Harding made 24 saves for his seventh career shutout.
Against the former North Stars -- the team his dad, J.P., coached and played for -- Zach Parise scored his first goal in a Wild sweater as Minnesota opened the season 2-0.
"It's been a tough couple months here," said Harding, 28. "This made it all worth it. I can't thank the team enough for having my back."
Harding revealed in November that he had been diagnosed with the debilitating autoimmune disease, one in which the body randomly attacks and eats away the protective lining of the nerves. It's incurable, but doctors are treating it aggressively.
Harding disclosed the illness because he didn't want there to be distractions that could hurt the team if the diagnosis was revealed during a shortened season.
"He's an inspiration," said Stars center Eric Nystrom, Harding's former Wild teammate.
Harding thanked the entire organization, from "the top down."
"It's one of the reasons I signed back here [last summer]," said Harding, who passed up free agency for a three-year, $5.7 million contract. "This is a family. I can't say enough about each and every guy in here. They haven't treated me differently, and I didn't expect them to."
Harding is also grateful to Wild doctor Dan Peterson and neurologist Jonathan Calkwood of the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology.
"Words can't describe what they've done for me," Harding said. "I'm not kidding, I don't think I'd be here without those two guys. They've kind of saved me, and they made me believe."
Sunday morning, Wild coach Mike Yeo hoped aloud that Harding's teammates would play a "great game in front of him."
They did, limiting the Stars' chances and remedying many of the defensive scrambles they showed periodically in Saturday's season-opening victory against Colorado.
The Wild generated lots of quality chances but wasn't rewarded as much as it deserved thanks to the strong goaltending of Christopher Nilstorp, making his NHL debut at 28 years old. He made 31 saves.
And when the Wild did have a lapse, such as Ray Whitney's point-blank, shorthanded try with 70 seconds left, Harding was there.
The Cal Clutterbuck-Kyle Brodziak-Pierre-Marc Bouchard trio, along with Clayton Stoner and Tom Gilbert, drew most of the Loui Eriksson-Derek Roy-Jaromir Jagr matchups and did a superb job.
The Wild clung to a 1-0 lead after Parise's 195th career goal 8:11 into the game. It came after Jagr held Brodziak, turning a Stars 4-on-4 into a 4-on-3 Wild power play for 1:25.
The Stars twice broke sticks, essentially turning it into a 4-on-2. Just as the power play expired, Parise took Bouchard's feed and whistled a one-timer from 45 feet.
"You ... you should score there," Parise said, laughing.
Harding didn't sleep a wink Saturday night. He was that nervous. But his first test was a success. "I can't predict the future," he said. "I can only control what goes on day to day. And I'm doing everything in my power to make sure I'm ready to go. And it was just a great feeling coming out here and backstopping the team to a win."