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Howard a hard-luck loser for Red Wings

by Corey Masisak

CHICAGO -- When Brent Seabrook's shot reached the back of the net behind him, Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard skated over to defenseman Niklas Kronwall.

The puck had gone off of Kronwall and fluttered just enough to beat Howard, and the goalie sympathized with the pain his teammate felt as the Wings were bounced from the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday night in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals at United Center.

"It's tough. How can you get upset at someone who is sacrificing their body out there, blocking shots?" Howard said. [Kronwall] has been huge for us all year and you know, he doesn't deserve that luck."

The same could be said for Howard.

Detroit's goaltender was fabulous in this series, a huge reason why the seventh-seeded Red Wings surged to a surprising 3-1 lead in the series and maybe the only reason the Blackhawks didn't embarrass the Red Wings in Game 1 or cruise to an easy win in Game 7.

He made 33 saves in Game 7 on Wednesday, including 23 in the first 40 minutes while the Blackhawks carried the play for long stretches.

"[Howard] has been so good for us, not only last year, this year," Kronwall said. "I don't think I've ever seen him this good. Unfortunately we weren't able to get the win for him."

Howard has been the team's starting goaltender since Chris Osgood retired after the team's second consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2009. The numbers before this season -- three straight years with 35-plus wins, two of the three with a .920 or better save percentage -- have always been solid, but Howard rarely received credit for the team's success.

With Nicklas Lidstrom in retirement and Brad Stuart in San Jose, this season was a new challenge for Howard and the Red Wings. His 2.13 goals-against average matched a career high, and his .923 save percentage just missed matching his rookie season.

"Jimmy's a great goalie. Sometimes he gets overlooked playing in Detroit, but he's been our MVP -- him and Hank [Zetterberg]," veteran forward Daniel Cleary said. "I've always believed you don't go anywhere without a great goalie. He played great for us, gave us a chance to win. OT in Game 7 - what are you going to do?"

What he's accomplished with a much younger defense corps in front of him has been impressive. His play in this series against the ultra-talented Blackhawks was that of a goaltender who deserves to be considered among the League's elite.

"I think [Howard], it is just like [Corey] Crawford, it takes you a while to establish yourself and be as consistent as you want to be," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I think [Howard] gave us a chance each and every night in the playoffs. I think any goaltender this year at the start when you didn't have training camp, it was hard to be consistent.

"[Howard] has been so good for us, not only last year, this year. I don't think I've ever seen him this good. Unfortunately we weren't able to get the win for him."
-- Niklas Kronwall on Jimmy Howard

"[Howard] is one of those guys, what I liked about him is he signed the big contract during the year and it didn't faze him one bit. He's just an everyday-er. He really competes hard and he's determined and he likes winning."

The defense will mature, and some of the young forwards the Red Wings will move into bigger roles. There are more talented kids on the way up front as well. Detroit general manager Ken Holland will have some salary cap space to work with.

If this was a "rebuilding" year in Detroit, it is clear the Red Wings will be back among the teams considered Stanley Cup contenders soon. They weren't for much of this season, but Howard nearly made them one.

There are no problems in net for the Red Wings. Howard has become a top goaltender and a leader for the team.

Just ask one of the other leaders on the team.

"That says a lot about him as a person," Kronwall said of Howard's gesture after the goal. "Everybody wants to win in here, you don't make a mistake on purpose. But it's hard. Obviously, you don't want to be in that spot. Unfortunately, it went off me and went in and we're going home.

"I wish we could have won that series for [Howard]. He really deserved it."


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