ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As the parade of players with frowns and scowls slowed to a trickle and the Minnesota Wild locker room started to empty, one man remained surrounded at his locker stall with a smirk -- almost a smile -- on his face.
No, goaltender Josh Harding was not happy the season is over. Nobody in the room was.
But no player in the room had to endure what the 28-year old veteran had to endure off the ice. And though there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Wild as they head to a 10th straight offseason without advancing past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, perhaps no one in the room had the positive outlook Harding had.
"It's one of the reasons I re-signed back here [last summer]," Harding said. "I know this hockey team is headed in the right direction."
The same could be said about Harding, diagnosed last fall with multiple sclerosis, a revelation that not only cast doubt on his hockey career but changed his life.
While the Wild celebrated two of the biggest free-agent signings in recent memory this offseason (Zach Parise and Ryan Suter), Harding struggled with the new reality that life was about to become much different.
Saturday, while recapping a season when he missed three months on a quest to find a way to cope, a way to continue his career -- a way to find normalcy -- Harding's outlook is better than ever.
"That's why I missed time this year," Harding said. "I'm definitely happy with where I'm at now, but I'll be even more dialed in next year."
After playing in five games during the regular season, Harding was thrust into the playoff spotlight after an injury to No. 1 goaltender Niklas Backstrom during warm-ups before Game 1. Harding started all five games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Most importantly, Harding was able to report no side effects from his first extensive action in more than a year.
"I played five games in nine days, and without that little injury, I was feeling great," Harding said. "No setbacks at all."
Harding was forced from Game 4 with a left-leg injury. He said he may have returned a bit too soon, but it will not require anything other than rest this offseason.
"Obviously I had a little problem with it, if anybody's seen me play, I rely on my quickness," Harding said. "Obviously I didn't have that in Game 5."
There is no question this offseason is a big one for Harding and the Wild. The organization has many lingering questions.
Does the team have enough finishers? Which prospects are ready to make the jump to the NHL? Perhaps most importantly -- and most relative to Harding -- who will be the No. 1 goaltender?
Backstrom, 35, is an unrestricted free agent and will have surgery to relieve a sports hernia Wednesday. In the past few years, he's had to rehab injuries to his groin, his hip and an ankle.
Although Backstrom finished tied for the League lead with 24 victories this season, he struggled down the stretch and his goals-against average and save percentage were among the worst of his seven-year career.
Harding, after spending the past year worrying about getting his life back on track, could find this summer being about getting his career back on track. With questions surrounding Backstrom and every other free-agent goaltender expected to be available this summer, Harding could find himself as the top guy in Minnesota next season.
If that's the case, Harding said he's willing to take on that challenge. Asked if he feels he's ready to play 50 or 60 games next season, Harding went even further.
"Yeah, I'd love it. I'd like to play all 82," Harding said. "Obviously, that comes with a lot of work on my part."
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said he feels the team is comfortable solving Minnesota's goaltender questions with Harding if it comes down to that.
"Absolutely," Fletcher said. "Doctors are telling me now they feel they can manage his interest. He's gonna have all summer. I think he lost a little weight and had some trouble getting it back during the season. My hope is, over the summer, he'll get healthy with his strength and his weight. He's a guy that's never been that No. 1, but certainly during periods of his career, has shown the ability to be a good goaltender."
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