CHICAGO - Scoreboards don’t grade on a curve.
We can recognize that while Josh Harding will go down as the losing goaltender in the Wild’s 2-1 loss to Chicago at the United Center on Tuesday night, he was the most remarkable player on the ice.
Three months since his last NHL start, at the end of a season in which he revealed he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, circumstances thrust Harding into a role almost as unusual as that of a convalescing professional hockey player.
Suddenly, people were referring to him as the Wild’s “healthy’’ goaltender.
When Niklas Backstrom collapsed while warming up Tuesday night, Harding, the Wild backup, found himself starting in an NHL game for the first time since Jan. 30, when he allowed two goals on four shots to the Blackhawks and got benched.
He found himself starting in Game 1 of the Wild’s first playoff series since 2008.
Starting in an arena that can leave you deaf even if you keep your nerve.
Starting at the end of a season in which MS forced him to miss a couple of months, leading hockey writers to nominate him for the Masterton Trophy, which honors players who show exemplary perseverance.
Tuesday night, in his first NHL playoff start, he persevered. He stopped 35 of the heavily-favored Blackhawks’ 37 shots, giving the Wild plenty of time to pull an upset before Bryan Bickell slipped the puck past him with 3:25 left in the first overtime.
“It’s pretty remarkable,’’ said teammate Kyle Brodziak. “I don’t even want to begin to guess on the ups and downs he’s had to face in his life.
“Everybody in here is very proud of him and at the same time we’re very confident in his abilities.’’
To admire Harding would have been understandable. To express confidence in him as a playoff goaltender at this point in his career required faith.
“I’m getting ready to post the lineup and sure enough find out that [Backstrom] is not suited to go,’’ Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “It was a bit of a curveball, to say the least. But Josh was phenomenal. We’ve said this before: It’s hard to sit here and paint an accurate picture of what he’s gone through because we have no idea. He’s certainly a guy, for many reasons, that you root for.’’
Harding shunned that kind of attention. He would not talk about his disease.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow and getting better,” he said. “It’s my job to stop the puck, and that’s what I had to do.’’
“Good for him,’’ Yeo said. “I think we should respect that. Even I have to catch myself sometimes when it comes to that. The reality is he’s part of our team and he’s a hockey player and that’s how he wants to be treated.’’
During warm-ups, Backstrom reached for a puck to his right, then rolled over, in pain. Yeo called it a “lower-body’’ injury. It might be a groin, or a knee. Who knows when he will be ready to play?
In that moment, Harding may have been transformed from an inspirational afterthought to the most pivotal player in the series.
Chicago’s goaltender, Corey Crawford, entered the game with a 5-8 postseason record, and gave up the first goal of the game, a harmless-looking wrister by Cal Clutterbuck. Harding gave up two goals he had little chance of stopping. He turned the first game of what was expected to be a lopsided series into one of those dramas that costs hockey fans a lot of sleep.
“Hards is a pretty incredible story,’’ said Wild forward Devin Setoguchi. “I don’t think there’s any other professional athlete playing with MS other than him.’’
Harding shrugged and said, “I felt great.’’
Only he knows whether that’s true.