Whether he wants to be or not — and he doesn’t — Josh Harding continued to be a major story around hockey Wednesday, one day after being called upon at the last second to play goalie for the Wild in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Harding, making his first career playoff start and first NHL start since experiencing complications from multiple sclerosis, made 35 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp called Harding an “inspiration for so many people.” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said the way Harding played “was nothing short of amazing.”
Former teammate Eric Nystrom tweeted, “Harding exemplifies everything [a] hockey player should be! No quit, no feeling sorry, just battling against all odds fearlessly.”
Even celebrity Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, tweeted, “NHL playoffs! Yes !!! Josh Harding... Great story.”
Harding is genuinely uncomfortable with all the hoopla surrounding his appearance Tuesday. He wouldn’t care if the story was simply about an impressive performance by a goaltender who had to flip that mental switch in warm-ups and go from backup to starter in a snap.
But Harding doesn’t want to be known as the goalie with MS. What’s more, with it crucial that the Wild focuses on returning to Chicago and forcing a split, he doesn’t want to be considered a hero because he backstopped a playoff game with MS.
“I have to take care of my business, and there’s a lot of time in the summer to get caught up on all that stuff,” Harding said of the outpouring of support.
The Wild’s longtime backup knows he must get refocused for Friday’s Game 2 because the chances are good he will be starting.
Niklas Backstrom is day-to-day because of what coach Mike Yeo is calling a lower-body injury. But considering Backstrom had to struggle off the ice in discomfort Tuesday and considering he has had groin and hip issues in previous seasons and considering the Wild recalled Darcy Kuemper even though the Houston Aeros had a playoff game Wednesday night, all signs point toward Harding being between the pipes Friday.
“We have a lot of confidence in him and we know how good of a goalie he is,” teammate Zach Parise said. “I can’t imagine what’s going through his mind at the time going through that circumstance, but I thought he rose to the occasion and played great, and really gave us a chance to win.
“I don’t know what Backy’s status is, but if it’s Josh moving forward, we have a lot of confidence in him, too.”
Harding didn’t see Backstrom get hurt Tuesday. He was on the ice stretching when Backstrom reached for a rebound to his right. He pushed off and seemed to pull something in his left leg.
“Mikko [Koivu] came and said, ‘Hards, get in there,’ ” Harding said. “I went in and finished warm-up, and I took the end shots.”
Harding began a final lap around the zone. As he reached the red line, Harding was joined by Parise, who gave him a few words of support and a tap of his stick.
“He’s had a hard year. We all know that. He’s gone through a lot,” Parise said. “I was just telling him it was his time now.”
Harding departed the ice like the starter would with four minutes left in warm-ups. When he got to his locker, Backstrom wasn’t sitting in the stall to his left.
“I just kind of took it as I’m playing until somebody comes and tells me I’m not,” Harding said.
The Wild did a quality job defensively to protect him. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon blocked seven shots. Marco Scandella and Ryan Suter combined for eight, and Suter logged 41-plus minutes.
“They played great,” Harding said. “I don’t know how many blocked shots they had , but they had a lot. There were guys that were sacrificing, and that’s playoff hockey. We need to do whatever it takes to win. I think all the guys did that.”
Harding gave the Wild a chance to win Tuesday. The Wild couldn’t get it done, making Friday absolutely critical.
“There’s no question there’s a big difference between being 1-1 and down 2-0,” Yeo said. “But having said that, we have to make sure we approach it with the right mind-set. We have to go in with desperation for sure, but our goal is to get the split and that’s what we’re focused on.”