ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The simple fact that Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding was able to suit up for Game 1 of a Western Conference Quarterfinal series Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks could be considered a minor miracle.
His 35-save effort, considering the circumstances, is nothing short of astounding.
Harding's story began this past summer. As September drew to a close, Harding didn't feel right during workouts and when he would skate. His vision was clouded with dots and the pain in his neck and back wouldn't go away.
A visit to the doctor revealed Harding had multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis Harding revealed publicly just after Thanksgiving.
With the NHL lockout in full swing, Harding said he revealed his disease so when the season began his condition wouldn't become a distraction.
By the time the season eventually did begin, Harding was back to full strength -- or at least it seemed that way. In his first start of the season, Jan. 24, he stopped all 24 shots he faced in a 1-0 win against the Dallas Stars.
But he struggled five days later, allowing five goals in a loss to the Detroit Red Wings. On Jan. 30, Harding allowed two goals on four shots and was pulled after 6:45 against the Chicago Blackhawks. He relieved Niklas Backstrom in a game against the Vancouver Canucks Feb. 7, then the team placed him on injured reserve.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that can make everyday activities like walking a challenge -- much less playing hockey. When he was placed on IR, Harding was taking medication to relieve symptoms associated with the disease: tingling, numbness, blurred vision, weakness in his extremities.
Harding needed time to get his medications right and did not practice with the team for two months. After a couple weeks of practice and a pair of games in the American Hockey League, Harding was recalled April 22.
In his first game action, Harding struggled through a relief appearance against the Edmonton Oilers, allowing three goals on his first four shots in a 6-1 loss.
It's one of the reasons no one saw his performance Tuesday -- 35 saves on 37 shots in a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 1 against the Blackhawks -- coming.
"It's hard to sit here and paint an accurate picture of what he's gone through," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "I have no idea, we have no idea. He's a guy, for many reasons, you're rooting for."
Perhaps even more impressive were the circumstances under which the start took place: Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in a game in which Harding didn't know he was starting until five or 10 minutes before faceoff.
During pregame warm-ups, Backstrom sustained a lower-body injury which prevented him from serving as the backup. That meant Harding was going to be tossed right into action without the benefit of preparing as the starter.
"Obviously there are a lot emotions going through your head," Harding said. "But I've been a backup goalie for a bit and I know how important it is to get ready for every game. Unfortunate circumstance, but I thought I was ready and prepared myself right."
Harding said he didn't see how Backstrom got hurt, nor did he get any indication of what was coming.
"You don't have time to get nervous," Harding said. "Mikko [Koivu] came and said, 'Hards, get in there,' and I went in and finished warm-ups. I just kind of took it as I'm playing unless somebody tells me I'm not."
Forward Zach Parise said, "We have a lot of confidence in him and how good of a goalie he is. I can't imagine what's going through his head at that time, but I thought he rose to the occasion and played great. He gave us a chance to win -- a lot of chances to win."
The final words Harding received prior to faceoff came from Parise, who skated to up to him and quietly told him among the bustling 21,000-plus in attendance at United Center that Tuesday night "was his time."
It was a simple gesture by the Wild's alternate captain that Harding said he thanked him for after the game.
"That meant a lot to me," Harding said.
Not unlike what Harding's example is doing for the estimated more than 2.1 million people around the world who deal with multiple sclerosis every day. For some of those affected and their families who see Harding as an inspiration, it was their time too.
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