With a concussed Niklas Backstrom on the shelf for an indeterminate amount of time, Josh Harding has solidified his hold on the number-one goaltender position for the Minnesota Wild. More than that, he may have locked himself in as the best story in the NHL this season.
The 29-year-old net-minder is in his 8th season in the NHL, all with the Wild. A career back-up, he was supposed to continue in that role this season after Minnesota resigned Backstrom to a three-year deal. But a series of injuries have thrust Harding into the starting role, and he's responded better than most would have imagined.
Seventeen games is a relatively small sample-size for NHL goalies, but Harding's numbers still stand out. Coming into Sunday night's game against Winnipeg, he led the league in Goals Against Average (1.26, a quarter-goal clear of his nearest competitor) and Save Percentage (.945, tied with Robin Lehner of Ottawa).
He is also tied for first in Shutouts (2) and tied for second in Wins (12). His 11-game point-streak (9-0-2) is also the longest by any Wild goaltender in the team's history.
Compared to some of his career averages – 2.49 GAA and .918 SV% - those eye-popping numbers would seem to be prime for regression. Except for the fact that his defense is playing so well in front of him.
Coming into Sunday night, the Wild led the league in fewest shots-against at 24.1 per game.
Defenseman Marco Scandella talked about building off of Harding's play, saying, “Hards has been playing great. We're breaking out of the zone clean and I feel like we have possession of the puck a lot more than we did before.”
But in typical Harding style, when asked about how few chances he's surrendering, the first thing he does is deflect the credit.
“I think our team's not giving up much. When they do, that's when I have to make that big save,” Harding said, “but I can't say enough about the way the D-men are playing. It's fun to watch from my end.”
His coach, Mike Yeo, is far more willing to credit Harding's skill and hard work.
“I'm kind of running out of things to say,” said Yeo after the game, “He just keeps going out and it's amazing what that does to your group when your goalie's playing like that. When you have that confidence in that guy back there it makes a huge difference.”
Of course, what makes Harding's story all the more special, is the one thing he hates most to talk about: namely his health.
In October of 2012, right before the season started, Harding and the Wild announced that he'd been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an auto-immune disease which attacks the central nervous system.
Because the symptoms and progress of the disease are notoriously unpredictable, no one knows when – or, thanks to advances in treatment, even if – Harding will be affected to the point that he can no longer play at a professional level.
Still, one would have to think that the threat of numbness, paralysis and even loss of vision – all potential effects of the disease – would weigh on the mind of someone who's been diagnosed.
But instead of allowing that to become a distraction, Harding has become one of the leading advocates in town for fund-raising and awareness. He established his foundation “Harding's Hope” (www.hardingshope.org/) for those expressed purposes.
And – as was noted earlier – on top of that added responsibility, he just happens to be having the best season of his career to date.
There are many story-lines in the NHL worth telling.
But it would be tough to argue that Josh Harding's isn't one of the best.