Blackhawks vs. Wild: Josh Harding can't quite steal win for Minnesota


Thrust into action after starter Niklas Backstrom pulled up lame in warmups, Josh Harding wrote a great story, but it wasn't enough for the Wild to steal Game 1.

Part of the fun of playoff hockey is its unpredictability.

After missing the playoffs four straight years and failing to win a round in a decade, the Minnesota Wild's return to the postseason probably couldn't have started worse than it did.

Trade deadline acquisition Jason Pominville, who practiced Monday after missing the last two games of the regular season with an injury that seems a lot like a concussion but isn't being disclosed as such, woke up "not feeling well" Tuesday. As a result, he didn't take to the ice for the morning skate, and he was ruled out of Game 1 in Chicago.

It got worse before the game started. During pregame warmups, starting goalie Niklas Backstrom appeared to tweak his groin lunging for a rebound.

"Pretty much getting ready to pull up the lineup and post the lineup and sure enough find out that he’s not suited to go," Wild head coach Mike Yeo said, "so that was a bit of a curve ball to say the least."

In Backstrom's place, the Wild started Josh Harding in goal. Harding played in five games all year as he struggled to work through medication being used to treat multiple sclerosis. In his last start, Harding allowed two goals on four shots before getting yanked ... against Chicago on Jan. 30. The Wild would rally to win that game in a shootout.

So things weren't looking all that good for the Wild, already a heavy underdog in the series.

Harding, however, wasn't about to let his team quietly disappear in the series opener. Neither were his teammates, who packed it in tightly around their emergency starter, blocking shot after shot throughout the game.

No, Harding didn't get a win. Bryan Bickell scored on a two-on-one rush in overtime to give Chicago a 2-1 win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

While the Wild did what they could to protect Harding, who hadn't played in an NHL game since that Chicago start before relieving Backstrom in Friday's humiliating 6-1 home loss to Edmonton. Harding also made some outstanding saves and clearly belonged in the moment.

"I thought that we played a pretty good game, but obviously came up on the short end," Harding said after the game. "I thought we played good and if we just capitalize on a couple more chances I think that we’re going to be set. Tomorrow is a new day, I take the positives out of this game and forget about the negatives and go from there."

Forward Kyle Brodziak wasn't sure how many of the Wild players saw what happened to Backstrom during the warmup.

"You have to applaud Josh on the way he came in, and in a tough situation play the way he did," he said.

While the Wild blocked lots of shots, with Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella among the leaders in that regard, and while Ryan Suter set a franchise record by logging over 40 minutes of ice time, there just wasn't enough offensive push on this night.

The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Charlie Coyle combined for only five shots on goal, and the trio wasn't the kind of threat that fans are used to seeing. Without them, it's going to be tough on the Wild to compete over the long haul in this series.

Most of the offensive threat came from rookie Jason Zucker, a Las Vegas native who was in the AHL not even a week ago after a string of ineffective play with the Wild. Zucker's speed was a factor every time he touched the puck. He also played a more structured and responsible game than he had been playing in his last NHL stint. Zucker drew a penalty in overtime (should have been a double minor, too, but that's water under the ol' bridge) and hit the crossbar on a shot that beat Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.

While Crawford was outstanding after Cal Clutterbuck scored a softie in the first, and his team won the game, the story of the night was Crawford's counterpart in net.

Harding had precisely 20 minutes of playoff playing time before Tuesday, but he made the most of his situation on Tuesday.

"Obviously we would’ve liked a better outcome, but we definitely put up a fight tonight and we’re going to come back, put the work boots on tomorrow and get better tomorrow."

The Wild's nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy has overcome quite a bit just to get on the ice at all. For Harding to perform like that on a big stage -- on short notice, too -- is nothing short of a great story. It would probably be a surprise if Backstrom bounced back and was available to start Friday's Game 2, so Harding will probably get a chance to add another layer to his tale.

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