Much has been made of the torrid start that Wild goaltender Josh Harding got off to last season. He was in the middle of a Georges Vezina type season and catapulted to the league lead in goals against average. Hards was having himself a career year from start of October to December 19th when he had a scheduled regiment change in his MS treatment completely derail the remainder of his season.
Some argue that Harding carried the team with unsustainably high save percentages, while others look at what the Wild was doing in front of him. There were times that the Wild just plain played better in front of their ailing netminder as if they were trying to protect him more.
Harding faced a total of 690 shots last season, compared to Ilya Bryzgalov (891), Darcy Kuemper (702), and Niklas Backstrom (546). The Wild, as a whole, allowed only 567 total shots on goal in the time that Harding was actually playing. That number places them at 12th best in the league in shots allowed. Backstrom had a tough go of it last season. His even strength save percentage was a .909. This is not a good number, but where he really faltered was on Rush and Rebound shots. Harding was able to stop .837 percent of shots on the rebound whereas Backstrom dipped below the 80 percentile in this category, posting a putrid .736 percent. Mind you, those numbers are comparing shot for shot; maxing out at Backstrom's season total of 546 shots.
Harding clearly won the job from Backstrom for very good reasons. However, a reason that Harding was able to post such good numbers was because the team in front of him was the 8th best team in the league in Fenwick Against per 60 minutes with a 54.65 rate. This translated in to 38.78 shots per 60 minutes - which was also the 8th best in the league.
The Wild were doing a solid job of suppressing shots while Harding was in net. They kept shots on goal to 23.79 per game compared to 26 shots on goal per game while Backstrom was between the pipes. Darcy Kuemper had to face 27 shots on goal per game.
The Wild were a positive possession team as a 50.31% Fenwick in all situations during the October to December 19 stretch. After December 19, the Wild dipped to 47.41% Fenwick until the end of the season. Pretty ugly numbers after the Wild lost their MVP of the first half of the season. But one opinion on the fluctuation of possession numbers could say that the Wild had more trust in Harding to make the big save if they made a mistake and made more of an attempt to be aggressive in the offensive zone. Yes, there were some pretty large holes in the line-up during the second half with the Wild's best possession driving force in Mikko Koivu being sidelined for six weeks to an ankle fracture, Zach Parise missing time with an ankle injury, and Jared Spurgeon, statistically the best possession defenseman the Wild had, also out with an ankle or foot problem.
But the way I see it, the Wild made a real sub-conscious effort to protect Harding and Harding responded by picking his teammates up with solid play and bailing out their mistakes. Harding may have had unsustainable numbers, but the 20 skaters in front of him every night were doing their damnedest to keep his great play moving forward.
What makes this all the more painful is that Harding wasn't taken out of the line-up because of some injury, but because his body didn't react the right way to his treatment adjustment. If Harding can come back as healthy as he can be, and the Wild are able to limit the amount of shots he sees by being the kind of puck possession team they were in the Western Conference quarterfinal, I see no reason why Harding can't pick right back up where he left off.