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Red Wings working to get Howard back in top form

Wednesday, 11.27.2013 / 9:23 AM
Brian Hedger  - NHL.com Correspondent

DETROIT -- Jonas Gustavsson is starting for the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, but not just because of his 5-0-1 record or his October victory against the Boston Bruins.

Gustavsson will face the Bruins in a "Wednesday Night Rivalry" clash at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) because the Red Wings need to tinker with Jimmy Howard, who hasn't won in seven straight starts. Detroit is also just 2-3-5 in its past 10 games and recently snapped a seven-game winless skid, so it's time to fix whatever ails its No. 1 goalie, who the Red Wings signed to a six-year contract extension last season worth a reported $31 million.

"Let's be clear about this, we're going as far as [Howard] takes us," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday, after announcing his goalie decision. "We've got an elite goalie who it hasn't gone as good [for] and it happens for [other] players when they don't score. When you're a goalie and it happens for you, the spotlight is on you because it affects everything."

In other words, now isn't the best time for Howard to face the Bruins, who are 8-1-1 in their past 10 games with back-to-back overtime wins. The 29-year old Howard is going through the worst slump of his NHL career and Babcock wants him to start clearing his mind as he works with Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard to correct the issue.

In the meantime, Babcock is going with Gustavsson against the Bruins. The 6-foot-3, 192-pound Swedish goalie picked up a victory Oct. 14 against Boston at TD Garden and is coming off a strong 21-save road win Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.

"You take everything into account," Babcock said. "He's got [us] points in every game he's played in this year. He's played well for us. He gives us a chance. It's important that we win games and it's important that we get [Howard] feeling good about himself. To me, the whole key is confidence for [Howard] and feeling good about himself and then we can continue to roll on."

The Red Wings' top goalie won't sit out long.

Babcock plans to get Howard back in the net quickly, likely starting with a weekend trip to play the New York Islanders on Friday and Ottawa Senators on Sunday. The sooner the better for Howard. He's anxious to start turning his season around.

"It's just the way it's going right now," Howard said. "I can't really put my finger on it, but I'm not going to get down about it, that's for sure. I thought the season started off good. It's just been the month of November that hasn't been very kind. It's just something I have to work through. It's just something I have to deal with."

He's right on target about November.

After getting a win Nov. 1 against the Calgary Flames, Howard hasn't won since. He's 0-3-4 during his winless streak, with three of the four one-point losses happening in shootouts.

His primary stats have also soured.

During the seven winless starts, Howard has posted a 3.03 goals-against average with an .899 save percentage. As a result, his season totals (2.72 GAA, .908 save percentage) have inflated from their previous marks (2.50 GAA, .915 save percentage).

The team in front of him has also struggled. The Red Wings can't seem to get all six of their top defensemen healthy at the same time, while the offense has struggled to score almost all season long.

Asked if the sputtering offense puts extra pressure on goalies to be near perfect, Howard refused to take the bait.

"No, I think I was putting too much on my plate, trying to go out there and make everything look so great," he said. "All you need to do is keep the puck out of the net."

Sounds easy enough, but any goalie knows it's not, especially those in the middle of losing streaks. Howard and Bedard are already in the process of analyzing his technique, on video and in practices, but the biggest help will probably be a mere victory or two.

Confidence is everything.

"I don't think it's much, I think it's just a little bit," Howard said. "You get a win, you get on a little bit of roll and this will all be forgotten about."

The same could be said for his team. They are mirror images right now, with both just looking for that hot streak they feel is right around the corner.

"There's definitely no pushing of the panic button, that's for sure," Howard said of the Red Wings' recent rough patch. "We obviously know it's a long season and we're getting points, but you always want to get that extra one."

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