NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Considering how long and grinding an NHL season can be, it's jarring when it ends in an instant.
The Detroit Red Wings know this well, after Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook scored in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals to end the Red Wings' season. It was a particularly bitter sting considering the Wings had the Presidents' Trophy winners on the ropes after taking a 3-1 series lead.
Some players might replay the final goal in their head all summer wondering what could have been after such a rough postseason exit, but Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is not among them.
"Not at all," Howard told NHL.com last week. "Hockey is a game of breaks and momentum shifts and a game where something like that happens. It can be totally out of your control and the puck will roll in the net. It's just one of those things where it's frustrating and it's disappointing, but at the same time it's nobody's fault. You learn from it and you move on.
"The stars were aligned for Chicago that night."
GO EAST, YOUNG MAN
For decades the Red Wings have played in the Western Conference, replete with all of the exhausting West Coast trips and late starting times that come with it.
And how does goalie Jimmy Howard, the man who wears more than 20 pounds of equipment every night, feel about it?
"Thrilled, to be honest with you," he told NHL.com.
Playing in the Western Conference was a tremendous burden on players and fans, considering Detroit is in the Eastern Time Zone. As a result, the Wings will have far fewer body-wearying road trips and 10:30 p.m. ET starts.
"It's not so much tough when you go from the east to the west, but when you come back home, that's the hardest part," Howard said. "You're flying all night and you get in at five in the morning and it's very hard to sleep on the plane, or sleep well. It's hard for your body to recover."
Detroit's schedule won't be completely free of West Coast trips, of course. The Wings still make a visit to western Canada this fall and take a swing through California in January, but that stands in contrast to last season, when Detroit made four trips to the West Coast in 48 games.
Howard acknowledged there will be some obstacles with the transition, however. After years of familiarizing themselves with Western Conference teams, the Red Wings will have to study an entirely new slate of opponents, which could prove challenging early on.
"We could sit here and I could tell you systems-wise what Chicago's going to do, St. Louis, Nashville, Vancouver, L.A. -- I can tell you what they're going to do on their power plays, penalty kills, everything like that," Howard said. "But to be honest, I can't really tell you much about the Eastern Conference and what they're going to be doing. I think it's going to be important, especially in the early phases of the season, to really pay attention and learn another teams' tendencies and their systems."
That doesn't just mean more studying than normal; it means more studying than almost any other team in the League. Such a dramatic shift adds another wrinkle for a team that expects to be on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.
Of course, despite the challenge that presents, after spending years in arguably the toughest division in the NHL, don't expect Howard or the Red Wings to be shedding any tears about making fewer trips to Chicago or St. Louis any time soon.
"No, not really," Howard said. "I definitely won't miss that."
-- David Kalan
While it's a knee-jerk reaction to assign blame for the goal that eliminated Detroit -- some pundits questioned the defensive positioning of Niklas Kronwall, who screened Howard on Seabrook's goal -- it's awfully tough to make Howard the scapegoat for the Red Wings' current five-season championship drought. He's been stellar since becoming the starting goalie during the 2009-10 season, boasting a 130-62-26 record, a 2.35 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in that span. In the past two seasons Howard's GAA dipped to 2.13, while in 2012-13 no goalie in the League bested his five regular-season shutouts.
In the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Howard backstopped Detroit to a seven-game first-round upset of the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks, with three of the Wings' four wins coming in overtime. Against Chicago, Howard held the second-highest scoring team in the regular season to 16 goals in seven games, including a bravura performance in Games 2, 3 and 4, when he allowed just two goals on 88 shots. Even in Detroit's Game 7 loss, Howard might have been the best player on the ice, making 33 saves on 35 shots.
That kind of performance out of a goaltender, particularly a 29-year-old in his prime, was not lost on the front office in Detroit, a franchise that has won four Stanley Cups since 1997 with three different goalies without signing any to long-term contracts. That won't be the case with Howard, whom the Red Wings signed to a six-year, $31.8 million contract extension this offseason.
"It gives me a lot of confidence that [Red Wings coach Mike Babcock] and [Red Wings general manager Ken Holland] and all of management have a lot of confidence in me to get the job done," Howard said. "By them offering me that contract, it was a no-brainer to sign it and to be able to stay in Detroit where it's such a great organization. From top to bottom it's run first-class."
Barring the unexpected, Howard will have been Detroit's starting goalie for a decade by the time his contract ends, providing the Red Wings with the kind of stability in net they haven't had since Terry Sawchuk wore the Winged Wheel. That should be a tremendous boon for the Wings as they balance an influx of young defensemen with Detroit's year-in, year-out Stanley Cup expectations.
Howard, for one, expects some of the team's younger players to have different mindsets after last-season's unexpected playoff run.
"They got to play in two Game 7 situations in two very hostile arenas," Howard said. "I think everyone was writing us off in both series to lose out, and I think it surprised even ourselves that we got to be up 3-1 [in the series] on Chicago. … I think that's part of the maturation process, becoming a better player and a better athlete. You learn in those situations that failure isn't an option. You just think about winning."
Convinced as he might be that Detroit's defense will be improved in the second season of the post-Niklas Lidstrom era, Howard's new contract makes it clear management expects him to be the team's rock. His continued improvement and his play in the 2013 playoffs certainly justifies those expectations, and this season he may find himself under more pressure than normal considering the Red Wings are experiencing transitions on several fronts.
In addition to the relative youth of its defense, Detroit also shook up its forwards, signing big-ticket items Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson off the free-agent market. Also, realignment has moved the team to the Eastern Conference, a change that is welcome but nonetheless will require some adaptation. After years of learning the systems of teams like Chicago or the St. Louis Blues, the Wings will have a whole new slate of foes in the Atlantic Division, something Howard admits will be a challenge in the season's early months. All the changes have given him plenty to think about heading into the start of the regular season, Oct. 2 against the Buffalo Sabres.
RED WINGS 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
But one thing Howard won't be thinking about is the Game 7 goal against the Blackhawks.
"After that, I just flushed it out," Howard said. "This is a new season. This is a new start. We're moving to the Eastern Conference now so it's going to be a bit of a transition for us here at first. What's done is done and you've just got to move on."
Howard's focus on the season should be just what the Red Wings' front office wants to hear after committing to him through the 2018-19 season. After all, Wings fans don't want another banner to go up -- they expect it.
Those are the demands any goalie has to be ready for when he signs up to play in Detroit. But having spent 10 years in the Red Wings organization (he was a 2003 second-round pick), not only is that nothing new for Howard, it's just how he wants it.
"Every year it's the Stanley Cup or bust," he said. "That's the expectation of playing in Hockeytown.
"And that's the way it should be."