The third-string rookie goalie made 35 saves, and Dominic Moore scored twice to lift the Wild to a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. Since being called up from AHL Houston in January, Harding has stopped 90 of 92 shots in four games, and came within four minutes of picking up his second straight shutout.
“Surprised? No, not really,” Minnesota forward Brian Rolston said. “Obviously you don’t expect him to come in and do what he’s done, but we know how good he is.”
And now so do the Sabres, whose high-octane offence was throttled by a combination of Harding and the Wild’s defence that forced many shots to be taken from the perimeter.
“He frustrated us a little bit,” Buffalo centre Derek Roy said of Harding. “It seemed every shot he made a save on he made it look easy. It’s a tough night when the goalie’s hot on the other side.”
The Wild moved past idle Calgary and into sole possession of second place in the Northwest Division.
“Every game I get more and more nervous,” Harding said. “I’m just here trying to learn from two No. 1 goalies.”
Harding, making his second start, was playing in place of rookie Niklas Backstrom, who had appeared in 15 of the past 16 games. The two, along with Manny Fernandez, have given Minnesota life after a rough start.
“The organization did their homework with their goalies this year,” Rolston said.
Pavol Demitra, Keith Carney and Todd White also scored for the Wild, winners of two straight.
Things are going so good for the Wild on the road – they’re 12-3-2 in their past 17 – that even a failed penalty shot by right wing Marian Gaborik with 5:27 left in the second period didn’t cost them. Gaborik was awarded the shot after being hauled down on a breakaway by Sabres defenceman Nathan Paetsch.
The same can’t be said of the suddenly struggling Sabres, who have lost two consecutive home games by a combined score of 8-3. The league’s top-scoring team has just six goals over the past three games, including Michael Ryan’s tally with 3:59 left in the third on Friday that spoiled Harding’s shutout bid.
“We have a lot of firepower… everybody knows that,” Roy said. “I think it’s just a matter of execution.”
Moore, playing in his fourth game since arriving from Pittsburgh in a trade deadline deal, came into the game with just seven goals in his past 99 games. It was his third career multi-goal game.
Moore opened the scoring nearly five minutes in when his slap shot from the left circle eluded Miller. The puck appeared to go off Buffalo defenceman Teppo Numminen on its way to the net.
Moore made it 2-0 nearly 10 minutes later with his eighth of the season, taking a pass from Martin Skoula at the right circle before skating in and lifting the puck over Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller’s left shoulder.
“They were great setups on both of those,” Moore said.
Demitra pushed Minnesota’s lead to 3-0 with his 22nd of the season 3½ minutes into the third, and Carney increased the lead to 4-0 four minutes later. The goal chased Miller, who was replaced by Ty Conklin.
Miller, making his fifth consecutive start, finished with 18 saves, while Conklin made eight saves.
“They played sound defensively,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “That team worked hard.”
Notes: Buffalo concludes its three-game homestand Saturday against New Jersey, the Eastern Conference’s second-best team. It’s the first time the Sabres have hosted back-to-back games on consecutive days since Dec. 1998. … Minnesota C Wes Walz missed his second consecutive game because of an upper-body injury. … The last time Minnesota played at Buffalo was October 2003. … It was the final inter-conference game this season for both teams. … Backstrom was a healthy scratch, with Fernandez serving as the backup goaltender.