CHICAGO | Playoff surprise No. 1 for the Blackhawks: backup Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding suddenly playing Tuesday night to trade save for save with counterpart Corey Crawford for almost four periods.
And it was a moral victory for Harding even after third-line winger Brian Bickell beat him on a backhander with 3:25 left in the first overtime as the Hawks prevailed 2-1 in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
Harding was an inspiring story, even to any Hawks fan with a heart, as he made 35 saves. He was diagnosed last November with multiple sclerosis, coming back to play in just five games in his accustomed role behind Niklas Backstrom. He was activated recently, on April 22, after missing 33 games on injured reserved as he switched his medication.
Harding hardly had any ice time after his return a week ago, he came in doubly cold to playoff duty. Backstrom suffered a lower-body injury during warmups, necessitating Harding’s emergency start.
“If I was a goalie and not expecting to play, and play the way he did…he was ready,” Bickell said. “He got that game plan going in and executed it well.”
Harding downplayed his feat of nearly stealing a game on the road from the President’s Trophy winners on short notice.
“Just getting ready for the game,” he said. “What I do is my business and I prepare the way I prepare…I’m going to take positives out of this game.”
While notching 26 saves, Crawford was a Harding admirer from the other end of the ice.
“He played well,” he said. “We had some good chances and he definitely made some great saves. We were able to keep going and not get frustrated.”
Interestingly, Harding had a 6-3-0 lifetime record, 2.53 goals against average and one shutout against the Hawks. In contrast, Backstrom was 5-8-1 and 2.65.
The Hawks seemed tentative early on and slightly out of synch as Crawford saved them further trouble, allowing just winger Cal Clutterbuck’s goal early in the first period. Clutterbuck was matched by Marian Hossa’s power-play goal, thanks to a nifty pass from Patrick Kane, early in the second.
Chicago finally got the break when defenseman Johnny Oduya shot the puck off the boards late in the first overtime. Viktor Stalberg snared the puck and passed to Bickell, who finally ended the marathon with his second career playoff game-winner.
“Stolly got a good pass over to me. It was fun,” he said.
The Hawks are now veteran long-distance runners in the playoffs. Tuesday was the eighth of the last nine playoff games that have gone to overtime, dating back to Game 6 of the 2011 Western Conference quarterfinals against the Vancouver Canucks.