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Howard grabs chance to become Detroit's main man

by Dan Rosen
It was after the Red Wings got back from Sweden and before Chris Osgood came down with the flu that Jimmy Howard had a talk with his only close friend who follows hockey.

"I said, 'All I need is one good game and I'm just going to take off,' " Howard recalled to Friday. "I just needed that one game to realize that I belong up here and I can perform up here."

It's amazing how these stories turn out, isn't it?

Howard, who gave up five goals in his start in Stockholm, got his chance when Osgood came down with the flu in November. He won three games in four nights, allowing only six goals in the process, including a sterling 31-save, first-star performance in a 3-1 victory over Roberto Luongo and the Canucks.

Osgood came back and didn't exactly tear it up, leaving Howard another chance to claim the No. 1 job in Detroit. After his marvelous, two-point-stealing, 51-save performance Thursday night in Los Angeles, it's fairly evident that Howard wants the job.

Howard has played in 16 of the last 19 games and he's 10-5-1 with a .941 save percentage and 1.86 goals-against average. For the season he's 15-9-2 with .927 save percentage (4th in the NHL) and 2.19 GAA (8th in the NHL).

After spending the last four seasons in the AHL, save for nine games up with the Wings, Howard, 26, is finally entrenched as the Red Wings' No. 1 goalie. He also belongs high up on the list of Calder Memorial Trophy candidates.

Without him, the beaten and battered Red Wings would be lagging much further down the Western Conference standings.

"We've needed some people to step up in order to say in the race and he's been one of them," Detroit GM Ken Holland told Friday. "If you look at his numbers starting at the beginning of November, I have to think he's near the League lead in save percentage and goals against. He's probably played as well as any goalie in the League."

Howard's rise up Detroit's depth chart has been slow and steady. He was drafted 64th overall in 2003 after playing for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships. He spent the next two years finishing out his career at the University of Maine as an All-American.

When he turned pro after the work stoppage, Holland saw a 21-year-old goalie that wasn't fit to play in the NHL.

"He wasn't nearly in the condition he needed to be," Holland said.

For the next three seasons, the Red Wings pushed, prodded and really did everything they could to get Howard into the shape he needed to be in.

Holland, a former goalie himself, believed enough in Howard to sign him to a three-year contract after the 2007-08 season. He also hedged his bets by signing veteran Ty Conklin to backup Chris Osgood last season.

"I'm a big believer in players maturing and developing, and I thought one more year in the AHL would help Jimmy," Holland said. "It was a two-way (deal) in Year One of his contract and this year and next year are one way. We committed two million (dollars) to him so obviously we felt he would be an NHL goalie."

Howard may have initially thought he was ready to be an NHL goalie last season, but now he's not so sure. He had his best AHL season last year, posting 21 wins and a 2.54 goals-against average in 45 appearances.

"You know what, I don't know now," Howard said when asked if he thinks he could have played in Detroit last season. "I am sort of thankful that they didn't rush me along."

Since the Griffins were never a threat in the Calder Cup Playoffs, Howard also got to practice with and, more importantly, watch from inside the glass Osgood, Conklin and even Dominik Hasek during the Red Wings long playoff runs the last two springs.

"I said, 'All I need is one good game and I'm just going to take off.' I just needed that one game to realize that I belong up here and I can perform up here."
-- Jimmy Howard

He can't even begin to tell you the value of those experiences.

"A lot of things really sank in when I was up here and watching," Howard said. "If things didn't go right one night, Ozzie just let it roll off his back. He didn't get too high or too low."

So that's how Howard is trying to be now, and it's easy because his confidence level is through the roof.

"I think just being in this dressing room you learn how to take everything day by day," Howard said. "You watch guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Ozzie. Ten minutes after the game, it's over and you move on to the next. You watch how they carry themselves and you try to mirror their images.

"I haven't been doing anything special."

That's not entirely true.

Howard has spent a great deal of time working with Wings' goalie coach Jim Bedard on playing outside the crease so he can challenge shooters and cut off angles. He's a big goalie, just over 6-feet tall and 210 pounds, so he trusts his body to get a piece of a shot even if he is off the angle just a tad.

"He's big, covers a lot of space, and he's playing with a ton of confidence," Holland said. "Jim Bedard deserves a ton of credit. He's worked hard during the year to get him outside of the blue to challenge the shooters. With his size, there is not a lot of space to shoot."

Just by listening to Holland, you can tell how much he likes Howard.

Maybe it's the former goalie in him, or maybe it's the manager in him that appreciates the fact that Howard is paying off in a big way. Remember, Holland was really gambling this summer by not re-signing Conklin.

"Obviously you wonder given how well Ty played with 25 wins and he's a known commodity and Jimmy is an unknown," Holland said.

Save for Holland and Bedard, Howard's corner was virtually barren of supporters inside the hockey world. He hadn't done enough at the NHL level to prove he could be a good full-time backup to someone like Osgood, who was slated to play only 50 games anyway.

"The experts had reacted to Jimmy's very, very brief opportunity in the NHL," Holland said. "Last year he came up one day, was playing in Minnesota the next, gave up four goals and was sent back down the day after. I mean, you're only looking at a snapshot. I don't know how you can judge someone in one, two or three games. You have to give a player a chance to get comfortable before you judge them."

Howard, of course, knew that, too.

"I knew that Jim Bedard was in my corner and Kenny was in my corner," he said. "It was just a matter of time. I needed to be patient and when I got my opportunity, run with it."

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