Mike Yeo tried hard to show his poker face after Wednesday's practice, but it took exactly eight seconds for the Wild coach to turn over his cards. ¶ Asked if Josh Harding would start Thursday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks, Yeo said, "Do I have to say right now? Can't we keep that a surprise for everybody?" ¶ A reporter followed by saying, "You're coming back with him though, right?" ¶ Yeo's answer? "Yup."
Frankly, how could Yeo not come back with Harding?
In his fourth consecutive start against the Red Wings and third in a row this season, Harding turned away 36 of 37 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory Tuesday in Detroit. He had to be good early and exceptional late, and this performance followed Harding's 36-save, 1-0 shutout over the same opponent three nights earlier.
"We looked at the schedule. We don't play Detroit again until March, so it's probably not fair to make him wait until the next Detroit game," Yeo joked. "I think you have to go with Hards. You have to reward him, for one. And two, when a goalie's feeling like that, and he's playing like that, give him a chance."
So Niklas Backstrom, the Wild's $6 million-a-year No. 1 goalie, will have to sit and wait his turn. But Yeo made it clear that Backstrom is "playing great hockey for us, too, and I don't think we can forget that."
The Wild has the NHL's fourth-best goals against at 2.09 a game, and Backstrom is 3-3-2 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
"We're spending a lot of time talking about it like we have a goalie controversy or something right now," Yeo said. "To me, it's just a guy who's earned an opportunity to go out and get the net again. We go day by day here."
Day by day also, the Josh Harding story is becoming one of the NHL's biggest feel-good stories of the season.
After his 2009-10 season was cut short because of a torn labrum in his hip, Harding missed all of last season because of torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.
Harding worked excruciatingly hard at his rehabilitation but still never could have imagined a 2-0-1 start with a 1.30 GAA and .965 save percentage.
"A year-and-a-half off is a year-and-a-half off," Harding said. "It's only three games though. Three games doesn't make a whole year."
Spreading the credit
If you know Harding, he's nothing if not humble. In postgame interviews, he praises Backstrom so much, you would think Backstrom shared the net that night with him. After victories, he spends more time going on and on about the play of the Wild's six defensemen than his masterful saves.
But in the case of the latter, Harding has a point. Both he and Backstrom have had strong starts, but the Wild's stellar goals-against mark is a group effort from a part of the team many felt would be the weakest link.
The Wild had only three returning veteran defensemen in Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky and injured Greg Zanon, so there was concern over the inexperience of Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon and Justin Falk.
But the four youngsters have provided quality minutes, and in the past two games, Nate Prosser has filled in perfectly for the injured Stoner.
"They are young, but they don't play like they're young," Harding said. "If you put them on the ice and had to guess how old they are, you're not guessing what their ages are. They play way above that.
"I don't know if it's because of last year with the AHL run they had [with the Houston Aeros], but they're calm and poised and we're hoping they can keep it up."
Harding hopes he can keep it up, too, and he admits he's still learning to trust his body.
"I know how lucky I am to be playing this sport," Harding said. "I didn't know what was going to be my future. I had no idea. I don't think you can name too many goalies that had this surgery."
Two good goalies
Coincidently, one goalie who had the exact surgery was Backstrom. He tore his left ACL and MCL in a Finnish national team game in 2004. He returned to play the playoffs on a torn ACL, his Karpat Oulu team beating Mikko Koivu's Turku team for the championship before he went under the knife.
"It's not an easy recovery, and it took me a year to feel comfortable," Backstrom said. "Josh looks really good out there, and every team needs two good goalies. In this league, you can't give away 10-20 games, so it's important you can have two good goalies."
Backstrom has been happy with his start, which is why Yeo doesn't want him to sit long.
"We can't now just sit here and say, 'OK, Let's let Hards run with it now,'" Yeo said. "I don't want to just make [Backstrom] sit on the bench for two weeks here and then all of a sudden he hasn't played a game and we expect him to be at his best."