DETROIT — With Jimmy Howard in danger of losing his starting job heading into the playoffs, Detroit Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard tried to put the situation in perspective.
Howard became the starter in 2009-10. He’s signed through 2018-19. If he stays in Detroit through the end of the contract, he will have played 10 seasons for the Wings.
“Did you think nobody was going to come here and try to knock you out of your spot?” Bedard said to Howard in a chat the other day. “Come on. I’d like to see it happen more.”
Bedard told Howard the Wings were fortunate to have him and Petr Mrazek, a young talent. He told him he needed to embrace the fact the Wings have two good goaltenders. The challenge can become a positive if he rises to meet it.
“Obviously he’s feeling the pressure,” Bedard said. “I’m glad. Let’s see what’s he’s made of. Let’s see what he’s made of. I think what he’s made of is all good. Sometimes you’ve just got to hit the reset button.”
There is no need to hit the panic button. Yet.
Yes, the Wings have only seven games left before the playoffs. Howard has struggled lately. Mrazek has been inconsistent. Coach Mike Babcock decided to start Mrazek for the third straight game Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, giving him a chance to bounce back from a bad outing the same way he gave Howard a chance to bounce back from one last week.
“Obviously one of these guys have got to grab it,” Babcock said.
Obviously. As the old adage goes, if you have two goalies, you have none.
But let’s remember: Howard has a .916 save percentage over 335 NHL regular-season games and a .919 save percentage over 45 NHL playoff games.
He posted a .924 save percentage over 14 games in the 2013 playoffs, when the Wings nearly upset the Chicago Blackhawks and advanced to the Western Conference final. He had a .931 save percentage over three games in last year’s playoffs, when the Wings lost in the first round to the Boston Bruins.
There was some frustration within the Wings that he did not play the last two games against the Bruins because of illness. But he had a strong summer of training, and he played so well the first half of this season – 16-7-7 record, 2.11 goals-against average, .920 save percentage – he was named the Wings’ only representative for the All-Star Game.
Jimmy Howard is a good goaltender and he has played some of his best hockey this very season. The thing is, he went off on a stretcher with a groin injury Jan. 10 against the Washington Capitals and never got to go to the All-Star Game. He lost his conditioning. He lost his edge. He opened the door for Mrazek, who excelled in his absence.
Mrazek is a good goaltender, too – and likely will keep pushing Howard in the future. He won a Calder Cup with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins in 2013. He handles the puck well, manages the game well, loves to be in the net. He said playing under pressure is “the best way to be the best.”
“He has that swagger,” said Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg. “Even if he has a bad game or a good game, the next morning he’s the same guy.”
But he’s had his good games and bad games. This past weekend was a prime example: On Saturday, he shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning, the highest-scoring team in the NHL. On Sunday, he allowed four goals on 11 shots to the New York Islanders and got yanked.
Mrazek is 23. Howard is 31. Mrazek has zero NHL playoff experience. Howard has a lot. If Mrazek grabs the job, he grabs it. But the best-case scenario for the Wings is for Howard to find his game and hold onto it. That way the Wings have their most seasoned goaltender in the crease, and if he falters for whatever reason, they can go back to Mrazek – or Jonas Gustavsson, who has been injured most of the season but is close to being cleared.
Howard has said repeatedly this is a “minor roadblock” and it’s about “focusing on the puck.” It really might be that simple. Play an NHL season, and it becomes work to find the puck. You start guessing just a little bit, and you miss it. You struggle just a little bit, and you think too much. You need to get back to basics.
“It’s not mental, like, confidence-wise or anything like that,” Howard said. “It’s keeping your eye on the puck at all times and not losing sight of it.”
Bedard always says if the referee has the puck behind his back, you’ve got to know what hand it’s in. Ignore the noise. Ignore the clock. Ignore everything but that little black rubber thing. Play instinctively, and start in practice.
“With that responsibility of being the Red Wings’ No. 1 goalie comes a lot of pressure,” Bedard said. “But it’s funny. The harder you work and the more focused you are, these things just go away.
“You make saves. You don’t make a save on a Friday or a Saturday without working hard Monday and Tuesday. You can’t practice one way and play another. You can’t practice distracted. You’ve got to be focused. This is a tough gig. I think he’s tough mentally. I’ve seen him in a lot of real hairy situations, and he’s passed a lot of tests. He’s going to pass this one.”
After the morning skate Tuesday, Howard took off his equipment a few feet from a media scrum surrounding Babcock. He listened as reporters peppered the coach with questions about the goaltending situation – as one reporter asked Babcock if he was surprised “not really having a No. 1 goalie with seven games left.”
Howard didn’t make excuses. He was bad against the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks last week, allowing eight goals on 32 shots, before allowing one goal on 16 shots in relief of Mrazek on Sunday.
He didn’t back down, either.
“You have to deliver this time of the year,” Howard said. “Those two games, I didn’t. When my number’s called again, I will be out there, and I will play …”
“And I will be good.”
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