Howard emerging as the center of attention in Detroit
DETROIT --Jimmy Howard had just authored one of the best performances of his NHL career -- not just because the Detroit Red Wings goaltender stopped all 28 shots against a desperate Chicago Blackhawks club, but because of the magnitude of the situation.
The seventh-seeded Red Wings now are one win from completing an incredible upset of the Presidents' Trophy winners after Howard's second career shutout in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a 2-0 win Thursday against the Blackhawks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Despite this, Howard displayed his typical calm, reserved demeanor in front of a large contingent of credentialed media.
Well, until an older man in a red jacket and black slacks managed his way through the horde of people holding cameras and recording devices to extend his right hand to congratulate him.
"Mr. Hockey, how are you?" Howard said at nearly a whisper in reverence. "Nice to see you."
For a moment after that, Howard wasn't the 29-year-old goalie of one the NHL's proudest franchises who has his team one win from etching another famous chapter into the organization's lore.
He was like the kids who wait for his autograph -- just as he might have had he encountered Howe in his youth. Howard laughed after Howe retreated -- it really was a giggle -- then stumbled through trying to answer the question that had been posed to him before Howe's arrival while trying to process what had just happened.
Beyond that wonderful moment -- the kind that can make a night like this at Joe Louis Arena a little different than other places -- Howard was focused. He was reflective at times, but just as some of his teammates were working out in the team's weight room not more than 15 or 20 paces from where he was standing, Howard wasn't ready to congratulate himself.
"I always had faith in myself," Howard said. "I always believed in myself, and that I could go out there and play extremely well in the playoffs. So far in these playoffs I think I've done that, but we still have a long way to go. It is great to be in the position we're in, but now we've got to work even harder."
Others around Howard haven't always shared that faith in his abilities. He grew up in Ogdensberg, N.Y., a city of fewer than 12,000 on the St. Lawrence River that is closer to Ottawa than it is to Syracuse.
He played Junior B hockey in Westport, Ontario, about a 90-minute drive from home, then spent two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
That alone was a lofty distinction for a kid from a small town in New York, but he also was selected by the Red Wings in the second round of the 2003 NHL Draft after his freshman season at the University of Maine and became a star with the Black Bears.
Still, his path to this moment was a winding one. After spending three years with the Black Bears, Howard spent four seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, waiting for his chance while the Red Wings went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals.
Howard now is in his fourth season as the starting goalie for the Red Wings. He was a Calder Trophy finalist as a rookie, and has three 35-win seasons on his resume.
Of late, the Red Wings had not had the same success in the postseason they were accustomed to, and Howard, fairly or unfairly, has shouldered some of the criticism for that.
Now the Red Wings are back in the spotlight, and he's the biggest reason for their success. Detroit could return to the conference finals for the first time since 2009, but it would be as an improbable story this time instead of as a powerhouse as in years past.
"I sort of feel like I've been an underdog all my life," Howard said. "Coming from a small town, people always said, 'You'll never have an opportunity. You'll never have a chance to do this or that.' For me, I sort of just relish it. I like playing that role."
The team in front of Howard certainly has embraced it. Detroit needed points in its final four games of the regular season (all wins) to secure a postseason berth, then fell behind three times against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Since losing Game 5 in Anaheim and sliding to the brink of elimination, Detroit has won five of six -- including administering Chicago's first three-game losing skid of the season.
Howard has been phenomenal, stopping 189 of 199 shots in these six games (a .950 save percentage). Since a Game 1 loss to Chicago, he has stymied the mighty Blackhawks like no one has this season.
Three games -- all wins -- and a total of two goals allowed on 88 shots.
"He gives us a lot of poise," Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "We can play the way we want and know that he's back there and doing his thing. It is nice for the [defensemen] to have a lot of confidence in him and trust him, and he makes it easier for us to play."
It was a winding path that took Jimmy Howard from a small town in upstate New York to starting goaltender in Detroit, but he's emerged during these playoffs as a dominant force for the Red Wings. (Photo: Getty Images)
Howard's numbers as a starting goaltender were solid, even above-average, in two of the three seasons prior to this one. Still, there was a perception that Howard's success was in large part because of the players in front of him -- Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are two of the best two-way forwards in the League, and before this season there was a seven-time Norris Trophy winner named Nicklas Lidstrom on the roster, as well.
This season, there has been no Lidstrom (or Brad Stuart, or Brian Rafalski), and the Red Wings filled those spots with younger players. As much as the Red Wings' young players have been improving and a big key to the team's success, Howard's ability to clean up mistakes and provide stability has helped them grow up -- and the team to far exceed expectations from even six weeks ago.
A playoff run can do a lot for a player's reputation. Howard's name certainly will be mentioned among the League's elite at his position in the offseason. If he wasn't considered a top-eight or top-10 goaltender in the NHL two months ago, there will be some minds that have changed on that subject.
"For me, it's about going out and performing not only for these guys in the dressing room, but the guys like [general manager Ken Holland] and [goalie coach] Jim Bedard who had a lot of faith in me to give me the ball and run with it four years ago and stick with me," Howard said. "It's about proving myself to the guys in here in the organization."
Howard signed a six-year contract extension in April worth nearly $5.3 million per season that places him just outside the top-10 salary-cap hits for goaltenders in 2013-14, according to Capgeek.com. Asked if this postseason run has quieted any critics of the length of that pact, Howard offered a typically low-key response.
"I think it is a lot of hard work paying off," he said. "I don't think it has anything to do with the contract talks paying off or anything like that. I think it is just learning from my mistakes in the past and just pressing forward -- continuing to work hard and try to get better.
"It was good to get that out of the way, and not having to think about it. It allowed me to just go out there and play."
Howard described himself as a "hermit" Thursday when asked about his off-ice activity during the playoffs. Earlier in the series he responded to a question about time off by saying he spent most of it in his suburban home with his son, James Russell Howard IV.
There is a definite sense of calm from Howard -- whether he is looking for a loose puck in a scrum on the ice, dealing with one full of media members in the dressing room, or just being at ease with his place as the starting goaltender in a hockey-mad city.
That said, even he can allow himself a moment of childlike wonder when a hockey icon wants to shake his hand after a job well done.
"Not only Mr. Hockey, but we get to see Mr. [Ted] Lindsay all the time, Vladdy [Vladimir Konstantinov] before every game, you still to get see [Chris Chelios], [Kris Draper], [Chris Osgood] flying around here," Howard said. "It is great to have that history around here and have guys that are still fully invested and fully interested in us. For us, it is about going out there and carrying on the tradition."