CHICAGO – With steam rising from his soaking wet undershirt, Josh Harding walked in front of a Wild backdrop at Johnny’s Ice House, the Chicago Blackhawks’ practice facility, and said, “I need an oxygen tank.”
Harding was the Wild’s first-half MVP, but the goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 31 because of complications with multiple sclerosis. Donning his white pads, righthanded trapper and green mask featuring a painted toque, Harding rejoined the Wild for his first practice since Jan. 19.
“With how [good] I’m feeling, you’ve got to get some shots,” said Harding, who has skated at Braemar Arena in Edina with friends. “I haven’t [taken] in this quality of shots. Definitely a different pace out here.”
Harding looked surprisingly good. His appearance Wednesday was a surprise even to teammates, although maybe it shouldn’t have been considering the never-ending goalie carousel of the Wild.
Harding returned on the same day John Curry arrived to back up Ilya Bryzgalov because second-half sensation Darcy Kuemper is sidelined by of an upper-body injury. Remember, Niklas Backstrom is finished for the season following his second abdominal surgery in less than a year.
During Thursday’s game against the Blackhawks, Curry will be the seventh goaltender to dress for the Wild this season and second in two games to wear the same uniform number (emergency goalie Rob Laurie, signed from his day job to a pro tryout Monday, wore No. 33 in Los Angeles).
“There’s no question, it’s been a challenge all year long,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Harding initially missed the Wild’s four-game road trip to Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and Winnipeg in December to have an adjustment to his MS treatment. He returned to play two games Dec. 29 and Dec. 31, but as it turned out, he wasn’t quite right, lost them both and was sidelined again. He tried to return to practice later in January before being sidelined for the past 2 ½ months.
Harding wouldn’t discuss Wednesday if this had to do with his treatment change or if he had another MS flare-up. He said his time away was due to a “rough patch … that was out of my control” and “probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with.”
“This isn’t the time [to talk about it],” Harding said. “We’re in a playoff crunch. If I could’ve been out there, I would’ve been out there. It’s tough, it was tough.”
Still the leader
Harding went 18-7-3 in 29 games as of Dec. 31 and still is considered the NHL leader with both a 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
“We’re just going to take it day to day and if things go great, I’d love to be back in there and battling with the boys,” Harding said. “If that’s just me being there for the boys, cheering them on, whatever I can do to help this team, that’s what I’m going to do.”
For now, Yeo called Wednesday a “first step” and said there’s no plan going forward. There are six games left before the playoffs. Harding said his hope is to return to the Wild lineup. If that were to happen, he would need a string of practices and likely a conditioning stint with the AHL’s Iowa Wild, which has eight games left.
Yeo is hesitant to talk big picture with Harding because he has been down this road before. In January, the day before Harding had to leave again, Yeo talked publicly about how good he looked and said he was waiting on “final word” from doctors as to when Harding could return.
Last year, Harding missed two months because of complications with MS and then amazingly wound up starting all five games in the playoffs after Backstrom was injured moments before Game 1 against the Blackhawks.
“I know that he doesn’t want us really talking about [his MS], but the reality is it’s always going to be day-to-day, basically,” Yeo said. “But he’s feeling very good right now and he’s motivated.”
Kuemper was injured in the pregame skate Monday in Los Angeles. Yeo said he hasn’t been given any timeline. Luckily, the Wild acquired Bryzgalov, who is 4-0-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average with Minnesota, on March 4.
“It looks good on [GM Chuck Fletcher] that he recognized the need for that and then identifying a guy that would fit right in with our group,” Yeo said. “There’s no question that we felt depth at that position was going to be important.”