The circumstances couldn't have been more different, but the effect was the same. Niklas Backstrom hobbled off the ice during warmups for the Wild's playoff opener against Chicago last April, with a sports hernia that would bench him for the entire postseason. Josh Harding, who played in his stead, had missed much of the regular season because of symptoms related to multiple sclerosis.
Both Wild goaltenders were stunned last season by health issues, causing a slow start for Harding and a premature end for Backstrom. Both returned to training camp healthy, strong and eager to start fresh. And with the preseason schedule that ended on Friday in St. Louis, both said they are happy with their progress -- a feeling echoed by their coaches.
Backstrom played his finest game of the preseason Wednesday, stopping 33 shots in a 3-1 victory over the Blues. Harding has surrendered two goals on 40 shots in a pair of road victories and is among the NHL's preseason leaders in goals-against average (1.14).
After signing a three-year, $10.25 million contract extension last summer, Backstrom, 35, figures to remain the Wild's primary goaltender. Harding, 28, got back on track with solid performances in the playoffs and said he is prepared to handle any role the team gives him.
"Having two quality goaltenders in this league, you need that," coach Mike Yeo said. "You need a guy who's going to go out and win games for you on a consistent basis, but that's not enough. You need two guys you can play, whether it's because of an injury, whether it's to provide rest, or whether it's because (one) has the hot hand. We have that."
Yeo said Backstrom looked quick, big and in control Wednesday, boosting the team's confidence as well as Backstrom's. After having surgery in May to repair his sports hernia, he was off the ice for about six weeks. A smooth and relatively speedy rehabilitation left him plenty of time for his usual offseason routine, Backstrom said, including his cherished rest-and-recharge period in his native Finland.
That was particularly important after a season in which Harding's absence caused a steep increase in his workload. Backstrom played 42 games and led the league with 24 victories.
He returns this season a happy man, delighted to extend his career in a city he has come to call a second home. "Injuries just happen, and you have to live with it," said Backstrom, the franchise's career leader in seven categories, including victories (141) and games played (281). "It was a lot of work in the summer, but it went pretty fast, and I feel good.
"I was really hoping it would work out for me to stay here. We have good chemistry in the locker room and a great bunch of guys, with a good mix of experienced players and younger players. My focus is the same. I'm just working to be a better goalie every day."
Harding also said he feels great. Over the summer, he did yoga to increase his flexibility and worked on his conditioning and core strength.
It remains uncertain how much Harding will play this season, but he said he will accept whatever role the Wild defines for him. "I know my body now, and I know what's going to work," said Harding, who spend two months on injured reserve last season as he adapted to medication. "I'm excited for the season. It doesn't matter if it's me out there playing or if it's me on the bench; whatever I can do for this hockey club, that's what I'm willing to do."
Goaltending coach Bob Mason said Harding appears strong and rested, and he has seen no lingering effects from Backstrom's injury. Even the small details in their games, he said, have been on target.
"They've both looked sharp in camp from Day 1," he said. "Everyone is very pleased."
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