All systems are go for goalie Jimmy Howard when the Detroit Red Wings make their 19th-straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week.
And Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is as interested as anyone else in finding out how his rookie goalkeeper is going to make the most of his opportunity.
"His preparation will be no different than it's been all year in getting ready for the playoffs," Babcock said. "You never know what's between a guy's ears until they've been through (the playoffs) and survived.
"The beauty of this is (Chris Osgood) will be getting himself ready, but in saying that, Howie is our guy. We're going into the playoffs thinking he's going to be good."
And why not? Howard is one of the primary reasons Detroit is in position to continue beyond the regular season. He became only the fourth rookie goalie in franchise history to win 30-plus games, and his 25 consecutive starts were the longest by a first-year Wings goalie since Connie Dion suited up for 26 straight in 1943-44.
Howard, who has been mentioned as a potential Calder Trophy finalist, is 34-15-10 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .923 save percentage this season.
It's been quite a turnaround since his opening-night debacle in St. Louis on Oct. 3, when he allowed five goals on 32 shots in a 5-3 loss.
"His first few games weren't very darn good and it put us in a situation where we're saying, 'Geez, we probably should have kept (Ty) Conklin,'" Babcock said. "Now we're talking about Howie as a candidate for rookie of the year. Ten years from now, we'll all look back on Jimmy Howard and say he had a real good rookie year and then ran it nine more -- or, things just didn't go as well for him."
"I don't know the answer to any of those things," Babcock continued. "All I know is he works hard every day, seems to let bad goals roll off his back and has a great attitude. We'll eventually get to evaluate where his career has gone, but in the meantime, we like our chances with him in net."
After coaching Team Canada to an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, Babcock returned to find the Red Wings sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference with 68 points. There was talk the team would finish no higher than seventh, but the Wings kicked it into high gear and have gone 13-3-2 since March 1. Now sixth in the conference with 96 points, they have an outside shot of reaching 100 points for the 10th straight season.
"We've been fortunate to get on such a great run (following the Olympic break)," Babcock said. "I really thought that after the Olympics, we'd be playing in Chicago (April 11) with the hope of getting into the playoffs, but we're in already. It's great, too, because now we can make prudent decisions with our players -- if guys need to take a day off for a (muscle) pull or bad shoulder, we can do that."
Babcock also admitted those players eliminated in the early rounds of the Olympic tournament, and even those recovering from injury throughout the season, should be rested and ready to go by the opening round of the playoffs.
"Our team was so beat up, at one point we had eight very good hockey players out for a long period of time and we felt that if we could buy time and get good play from our guys on the farm, we'd be in good shape," Babcock said. "Some of our Olympic players (Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom) lost out early and that turned out to be a positive. We have a proud group here and could have easily been derailed if not for our good leadership."
From November through January, in fact, Babcock was concocting makeshift lineups daily at a time when forwards Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Darren Helm and defensemen Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall and Andreas Lilja were sidelined. The Wings actually lost an incredible 307 man-games to injury this season.
Babcock now is looking forward to having another shot at winning hockey's Holy Grail, and he likes the team he'll go to war with.
"The big thing here is we just do what we do," he said. "Our guys have been through it a number of times, they understand. We have a veteran team. Probably the most experienced team in the West, no question about it. As far as overall wins and playoffs, we've been through this. We understand what it takes. In saying that, we're like everyone else -- we'll be a little nervous, but that's a good thing because, without nerves, you don't get jacked up and you wouldn't be in the game."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com