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Goaltending issues cloud Detroit's playoff outlook

by Paul Harris /

DETROIT -- This is the Detroit Red Wings dilemma going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Do they go with a struggling veteran golatender who has a solid playoff track record or a talented young netminder with moxie, who has won some big games but has shown he still has work to do on the craft of consistently keeping the puck out of the net in the NHL?

Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek?

Howard had an outstanding first half of the season and was selected to play in the All-

Star Game. But only hours after the All-Star participants were announced, Howard injured his groin against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 10 and missed a month.

Mrazek stepped in and won eight of 11 decisions.

Howard did not regain his All-Star form after his return from the injury and Mrazek, 23, was also inconsistent and showed his inexperience.

It appeared Howard had worked through his issues with two consecutive strong performances in wins Detroit needed in its playoff quest late in the season.

Howard made 22 saves and stopped six shootout attempts in a 3-2 win against the Minnesota Wild on April 4 at Xcel Energy Center, Howard's second shootout win of the season.

He was even better, especially in the third period, of the Red Wings' 3-2 win against the Carolina Hurricanes at Joe Louis Arena on April 7. Detroit trailed 2-1 after two periods, scored twice in the third, and Howard made several outstanding saves to preserve the victory.

But he regressed in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on April 9.

Detroit led 3-2 in the third period but Howard allowed two soft goals through his pads. The first was on a severe angle from the bottom of the right circle to tie the game and the second was on a harmless looking shot from along the left-wing boards to give Montreal the win.

"They can't go in. Period,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “This is the National Hockey League. They can't go in."

Howard called his issues a minor roadblock a few days earlier. He said his main focus is tracking the puck better, like a batter's ability to read a pitch as it comes out of a pitcher's hand.

"It's very similar in that aspect, where you just want to concentrate and focus where that puck is at all times because the way this game is played now, it's so fast and every team has great players," Howard said.

Babcock was asked after the Montreal game about which goaltender he would go with in the playoffs.

“I'm going to have a beer and think about that,” he said.

Mrazek, a rookie, has potential, has been spectacular at times and has won the Calder Cup. He has shown the ability to bounce back from bad games with great performances. But there have been a few bad games and bad goals.

Mrazek has three areas he needs to improve technically: His rebound control, staying tight so pucks can't slip between his body and arms or his pads, and a tendency to come out too far and overplay shooters on angles.

Each of those deficiencies cost Mrazek and the Red Wings a goal in a 3-2 loss against the Boston Bruins at Joe Louis Arena, in which Detroit blew a 2-0 third-period lead on April 2.

The first goal was the result of a long rebound, the second was a tap in into an open net after Mrazek had come out too far on Reilly Smith, and the winner, with 2:08 remaining, came on a soft, harmless-looking shot from deep in the right circle that slipped between Mrazek's body and arm on the short side.

"He stole us a point the last game, stopped two or three breakaways tonight, so he's been huge for us," Red Wings forward Darren Helm said of Mrazek after the game. "There's a lot of things that go on when the other team scores goals, not just the goalie."

So which one will Detroit go with in the playoffs?

"The puck went in, it shouldn't have went in," Babcock said after the overtime loss in Montreal. "We're going to have to deal with that in the next few days to get that straightened out. But I thought our team played real hard."

Whoever does get the call will get the full support of the other.

"I want nothing but the best for him," Howard said. "He's a great young kid as well."

Mrazek said, "Howie is still No. 1 here. He's done a great job this year and so many years before. Every goalie has some bad days and great days. You just have to be focused, work hard."

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