The 2010-11 season is already full of intriguing story lines, but at the quarter mark of the campaign, standout performances by goaltenders certainly deserve top billing. This week, NHL.com focuses on some of those goalies in the spotlight, from the amazing first impression of Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington's Michal Neuvirth to the redemptions of Montreal's Carey Price and Boston's Tim Thomas and the continued stellar play of Detroit's Jimmy Howard.
DETROIT – Jimmy Howard had to laugh when told the new design on his goalie mask might be the coolest in the League.
On the front are two Ford Mustangs separated by white racing stripes down the middle, with an Old English "D" on the chin.
"The one last year had the speedometer on it with all the retired numbers, but people didn't really realize that," said Howard, who's in his second season starting for the Detroit Red Wings. "They just kept asking, 'What's up with the clock?' So, we decided to just get rid of that and go with something new."
The new paint scheme is the result of a collaboration between Howard and mask painter Ray Bishop. It was also inspired by Howard's favorite car in the movie "Gone in 60 Seconds."
Like his new mask, Howard, 26, has become more identifiable around Detroit while going 26-2-4 in 32 starts for the Wings dating to last season. He is 13-2-2 through 17 games this season. Not bad for a player who started last season as a rookie just hoping to get 25 to 30 starts before gaining a grip on the starting job and going 37-15-10 while earning serious consideration for Rookie of the Year honors.
"The one thing that's maybe a little different from last year is just that I'm more comfortable," Howard told NHL.com during Detroit's recent home stand, in which he went 5-0-1. "I know what to expect this year. I know how to handle things a little better. It's still a learning process, but playing behind these guys is just special."
It's also a luxury many goalies don't get.
Howard's other stats are a tad more pedestrian this season, with a 2.49 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He also missed two games in late October with back spasms.
Still, Howard has solidified himself as the No.1 guy in Detroit – even if he does tend to get lost in the shuffle a bit playing for a team full of stars. That's fine by him.
"It keeps you motivated," Howard said. "Whenever you think you've done a lot, you realize that you really haven't done anything when you look around the dressing room and see what guys have accomplished. It keeps you motivated and hungry to keep getting better -- and not just be good, but be great."
Howard may still be working on being great, but his team's already there so far this season.
What makes Detroit so tough is the ability of the players to pick each other up. The skaters have helped Howard forget some bad goals by scoring in bunches, and he's returned the favor with some great saves at key moments.
One of those great saves came with time running out in the first period during a 7-2 win against the St. Louis Blues last week. The game was tied 1-1 and the Blues were on a power play. Howard made a remarkable skate save to keep it tied and the Wings eventually scored four times in the third to secure the win.
"When you score seven goals, you kind of forget about that save," Wings center Darren Helm said. "But he makes a lot of those types of saves. Without him back there, we don't even have the opportunity to stay with it and make that big push at the end."
Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings' captain and star defenseman, agreed.
"We haven't overlooked him one bit," Lidstrom told NHL.com. "He gives the whole team confidence when he's playing well. We leave him out to dry sometimes, but he's come up with big saves when we've needed them. He's been a big part of our early success."
Howard, meanwhile, hasn't overlooked what and who helped him get to this point.
His confidence wasn't always this solid, he admits. Howard, though, credits a pair of goaltending legends -- former Wings goalie Dominik Hasek and current Detroit backup Chris Osgood -- for helping him improve it. Hasek retired from the NHL after accumulating 389 wins and 81 shutouts, while Osgood has 398 career wins and 50 shutouts.
Howard studied both during previous call-ups from the American Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins and continues to observe Osgood. All that studying seems to have paid off with his even-keel approach.
"It was something I really had to work on," Howard said. "I was really getting on myself, but the more and more I worked with and watched Chris and Dom, I learned how to just live in the moment and go game by game. Watching (Osgood) and seeing how stuff just rolls off his back really helped me."
Howard's smiling face in the Wings locker room the morning after a tough overtime loss to Minnesota last week was evidence. In that game, Howard allowed a long rebound that Mikko Koivu put past him to send the game to overtime with 42 seconds left in regulation.
Wild center John Madden then buried another rebound under Howard's pad in OT to win it. It was difficult to swallow, but it was history for Howard by the next day.
He learned that lesson last season as a rookie when he was unexpectedly thrown into such a prominent role.
Prior to that, he spent four long seasons in Grand Rapids waiting for a shot at the NHL.
He looks back on that time now and sees how that apprenticeship helped him improve.
"It was a work in progress," Howard said. "There was no overnight success. It was four years of grinding it out down in the AHL and really learning how to become a professional. It was just learning how to play night in and night out."
He also learned good practice habits. Like a lot of top goalies, Howard is as intense in practice as he is during games -- which Wings forward Johan Franzen has found out about the hard way.
"I can't score on him," Franzen said, laughing. "It's like, 'Please Jimmy, let me score once in a while ... c'mon.'"