PITTSBURGH – Soon after the Wild touched down in Pittsburgh late Wednesday afternoon to begin a three-game road trip Thursday, the team announced that goaltender Josh Harding wasn’t on the flight.
Harding, the Wild’s rock through the first 36 games and maybe the NHL’s biggest surprise this season, was placed on injured reserve to make a minor adjustment to his treatment protocol for multiple sclerosis, General Manager Chuck Fletcher said.
He must miss a minimum of one week, meaning the next three games. Fletcher said the Wild is confident that Harding will be able to rejoin the team Dec. 27 in Winnipeg.
“This is not a major situation at all,” Fletcher said. “This didn’t come out of the blue. I’ve been talking to Josh for a while about this. He needs to make an adjustment in his protocols, and now is a good time to do it [with the Dec. 24-26 holiday break on the horizon].
“He feels good. He played well [Tuesday] night, but it’s just something that has to be taken care of.”
Harding made 29 saves and wasn’t beaten by any of Vancouver’s three shooters in the Wild’s 3-2 shootout victory on Tuesday. It was Harding’s 18th win, which is second in the NHL.
The Wild’s longtime No. 2 goalie never relinquished the No. 1 reins after Niklas Backstrom, the team’s all-time leader with 186 wins, strained a knee Oct. 8 in Nashville. Harding leads the NHL with a 1.51 goals-against average and is second with a .939 save percentage.
He missed two months last season because of complications with his medication, but Fletcher said, “This is not a setback. This is not a situation where something occurred in the last 24 hours. From a hockey standpoint, we’re all confident he’ll be back after Christmas and play.”
Johan Gustafsson was recalled from Iowa of the American Hockey League to back up Backstrom, who presumably will start at least two of the next three games. That will be Thursday in Pittsburgh and likely Sunday against the New York Rangers.
If Backstrom is unable to start Monday’s second half of a back-to-back in Philadelphia, it’s unclear whether Gustafsson would make his NHL debut or if the Wild would recall No. 3 goalie Darcy Kuemper.
Earlier this season, the Wild twice recalled Gustafsson to back up three games before recalling Kuemper to play. Kuemper started for Iowa on Wednesday night against Grand Rapids, and Iowa has consecutive home games Friday and Saturday against Hamilton and San Antonio.
Kuemper has struggled in his two NHL appearances this season. He is 0-1 with a 6.10 goals-against average and .625 save percentage. He is 6-9 with Iowa with a 2.68 GAA and .923 save percentage.
In the meantime, the Wild’s cage — for now — belongs to Backstrom again. He is 2-5-2 this season with a 2.93 GAA and .900 save percentage. Backstrom tied for the league lead with 24 wins last season, but he hasn’t looked the same since offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia.
His lateral movement has improved recently, but his rebound control has been an issue. Besides the knee injury, Backstrom has sustained a concussion this season and recently had a virus that resulted in weight loss.
“But I talked to him a few days ago and he feels as well now as he has all season,” Fletcher said. “We all have complete faith in Backy. He’s played some great games for us this year and had been one of the top goaltenders in the league over his entire career.
“The guy can play goal and has won a lot of games in this league.”