Harding, arguably the Wild’s first-half MVP with a 18-7-3 record, 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, missed 21 of the past 23 games because of what’s believed to be complications with multiple sclerosis. He hasn’t played in 2014.
The most likely scenario is the Wild continues to run with Kuemper. But one wonders if Fletcher needs to look for insurance.
“We’ll get through the next few weeks and see how things play out,” Fletcher said. “Our goaltenders have played well when healthy. Certainly, there have been some health and illness issues that have made us look at different scenarios from time to time, but when our guys have played, they’ve played well.
“I’m very comfortable with Darcy and Nik. Both have shown the ability to win games. If Josh can come back and play, we have good depth. The key is making sure our guys are healthy.”
Asked if he believes Harding will play again this season, Fletcher said, “We’re hoping in the next couple weeks he feels better and we get to the point where he can return to practice with the team. That’s his goal and our goal.”
There have been a lot of good signs lately. Zach Parise returned from a broken foot and has made an immediate impact. Different young players, from Mikael Granlund to Nino Niederreiter, are stepping up nightly. The defensemen have played tremendously.
“We’re starting to get better in some areas we were struggling at,” Parise said. “We’re playing better without the puck to create more offense rather than retreating back and spending 45 seconds in our zone. We’re more aggressive. Our penalty kill is creeping up the rankings. Offensively, things are clicking.
“All the areas that at one time were lacking have improved. We know this race will come down right to the end. It’s inevitable. You want to peak at the right time and I think we’re slowly getting better and hopefully we’ll keep getting better as it gets tougher down the road.”
The final 23 games will be a grind. The hope is players return refreshed and in a good state of mind for a late-season push. The good news is no matter what Fletcher does before the trade deadline, captain Mikko Koivu’s return should be around the corner, which in essence, will be like a deadline pickup.
“He plays such an important role for us, and in all situations, to get a guy like that back in, it’s only a good thing for us,” Parise said. “Our young guys have been playing bigger roles than they’re accustomed to, so you just hope they keep that confidence because we’re a stronger, deeper team because of that.”