ST. PAUL, Minn. - Eleven games into his first season as head coach of the Minnesota Wild, Mike Yeo has a problem.
But it's a good one.
Both of his goalies are playing well. So while Yeo's choice to start Josh Harding again over Niklas Backstrom in Thursday's game against Vancouver was not made without hesitation, he expressed confidence in either option.
"Can we keep that a surprise for everybody?" Yeo said after Wednesday's practice, first pretending he preferred not to announce which goaltender will face the Canucks before confirming Harding will start his third straight game.
"It's not that easy, because I think Back has played great hockey for us, too, and I don't think we can forget about that," Yeo said. "But at the same time I think you have to go with Hards in that situation because he's played two great games. You have to reward him, for one, and, two, when a goalie's feeling that and he's playing like that then give him a chance."
The Wild are allowing 2.09 goals per game this season, fourth best in the NHL. Though young defencemen like Justin Falk, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon have performed beyond their experience level and contributed to the stingy scoring-against average, Backstrom and Harding have been the stalwarts behind it.
Backstrom has had a few substandard games out of the eight he's played in, but he's still the starter with an All-Star game appearance on his resume and a 144-94 record. Harding has worked his way back on the radar, however.
After tearing two ligaments in his right knee during an exhibition game, Harding needed reconstructive surgery and missed the entire 2010-11 season. That's a debilitating injury for a goalie, given the strain they put on their joints in games and practice.
Harding wondered whether his career was over and didn't assume the Wild would bring him back. They did, on a one-year, $750,000 contract, and their faith has been rewarded.
After making 38 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit on Oct. 15, his first on-ice action in more than a year, Harding beat the Red Wings 1-0 last Saturday — and then again on Tuesday, 2-1 in overtime.
"Now that he's played three in a row I think that he should feel real confident going into the nets," Yeo said. "He's got a lot in the bank. Let's put it that way."
His save percentage is .965, his goals-against average is 1.30 and his knee is 100 per cent.
"I know how lucky I am to be playing this sport," Harding said.
He said he was anxious last March when he first tested his knee by making some game-like saves in practice.
"I didn't know what to expect. It was a pretty slow butterfly. I think a 4-year-old's shot could've beat me," Harding said.
Now those nerves are behind him. Yeo is the one under scrutiny now, determining how long to ride Harding's hot streak without keeping Backstrom on the bench too long.
"We're spending a lot of time talking about it like we have a goalie controversy or something right now, but to me it's just a guy who has an opportunity to go out and get the net again tomorrow," Yeo said. "We go day by day here."
As does Harding.
"It's only three games. Three games doesn't make a whole year, and I know that there's still a whole lot of work left to be done," Harding said.
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