There's a well-worn path along the 160 miles of I-96 that separates goalie Jimmy Howard
's apartment in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
''I can probably drive (it) with my eyes closed,'' Howard said. ''It's only a two-hour drive.''
Howard's familiarity springs from his four-year tenure in Grand Rapids, during which he's been recalled to Detroit on 15 occasions. Those 15 trips represent just nine NHL games played, though.
Talk about being so close and yet so far away. For as quickly as Howard's NHL career seems to be inching along, his parent team might as well be based on the Moon.
''I don't think that's a bad thing," Howard said. "The Wings like to bring along a lot of their top prospects slowly. (Detroit GM) Ken Holland says he likes his prospects over-ripe. I feel like every time we play down here, they are watching closely.''
What the brass sees when it watches Howard is a player for the record books.
Entering this week, Howard, 25, has 88 career wins with the Griffins, tying Joey MacDonald
for the franchise record. While spending such a long stretch in the minors probably wasn't part of Howard's career plan, winning so much fits in quite nicely.
''I played on several good teams here in Grand Rapids," he said. "It's everything about winning. That's the attitude we have. 'You have to go out every night and give your team the best chance to win. I can't really have an off-night.''
Howard, a 2003 second-round pick, doesn't have to look far to understand that. Before he's even gotten his chance as the Red Wings' next big thing in goal, he's had to fend off 2006 third-rounder Daniel Larsson
for playing time.
But it's a fight Howard fully and willingly accepted. Last summer he inked a three-year deal with Detroit that will keep him neck-deep in organizational talent.
''I feel like I'm in a good place,'' he said. ''You can't take your foot off the pedal. You have to keep proving yourself every night and eventually things will work out for you.''
O'Reilly a factor with Milwaukee
-- Milwaukee center Cal O'Reilly
admits he used to be his own worst enemy. He'd dwell on when he might get a chance with Nashville, his game would in turn drop off and then he'd be that much further from a promotion.
''I've had a couple good years here. I'd get frustrated sometimes,'' he said. ''Sometimes you'd wonder. Then my game would slip and I wouldn't deserve to go up.''
The way O'Reilly is playing this season, it looks like he's got a lot figured out. Patience is one of those things.
O'Reilly had 3 goals and 6 assists in his first nine games back after the Predators returned him following a two-game trial earlier this month. That's an effort in line with his overall production of 14-55 this season, and his totals of 79 and 65 points in his first two pro seasons, respectively.
''I got sent down, I just said, 'I'm going to play great down here.' I focused on my game here, not worry about that,'' said O'Reilly, 22.
O'Reilly's tunnel vision has paid off in the much wider picture. Milwaukee's 96 points make it a runaway leader in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference and have it challenging for the AHL's best record.
''Every game is a playoff game for us. That's the mindset I have,'' O'Reilly said. ''Every team is looking to beat us. We want to be first in the league. When you're winning, everything is always easier because everyone is playing well.''
Picard engaging his talent
-- A haunting question has followed Syracuse Crunch forward Alexandre Picard for much of his four seasons as a pro.
''People asked the past couple years, 'How did you get drafted in the first round?''' he said. Not just in the first round. At No. 8 by Columbus in the 2004 Entry Draft, to be specific.
Picard has been a work in progress, but he's starting to answer that question with numbers instead of words.
For the last three weeks, Picard, 23, has been the hottest player in the AHL. He has 14 goals in his last 13 games, and last weekend produced 7 goals in two contests. His back-to-back hat tricks were the first by an AHL player in more than two years.
"I don't think that's a bad thing. The Wings like to bring along a lot of their top prospects slowly. (Detroit GM) Ken Holland says he likes his prospects over-ripe. I feel like every time we play down here, they are watching closely."
-- Jimmy Howard
''What attracted us to Pic is the things you are seeing, a front-of-the-net guy,'' said Columbus Assistant GM Chris MacFarland. ''When he plays like that, he has a chance to get games in the NHL.''
Picard has earned a bunch of those -- 58 to be exact. The problem in his case is that he's a power forward/energy type, one who needs an extended stretch of regular minutes to work up a sweat and get into a grinding groove. Other recent first-round Blue Jackets draft picks -- Derick Brassard
, Jakub Voracek
, Nikita Filatov
-- are skilled players who make flashier first impressions.
The wear-'em-down Picard is more of an acquired taste. His pro season high in goals is 15, set as a rookie with the Crunch. While he's been an effective third-liner in Syracuse, Picard has yet to get such constant ice time in Columbus.
After his most recent stretch of inactivity in Columbus ended with a demotion Feb. 3, he returned to the Crunch starved for regular contact. He was near unstoppable on bull-rushes to the net, looking like a player desperate to justify his prospect status.
"Every time you step on the ice, you need to prove what you can do,'' he said. ''It's not just me. It's everybody.''
Picard apparently has caught the right eyes. MacFarland, who saw Picard's four-goal game against Albany on March 21 in person, said the player's most recent run in Columbus featured his best NHL hockey to date. Based on what everyone has seen from Picard lately, he could be getting more soon.
"I think he's getting rewarded by going to the net,'' MacFarland said. "When you go into those high-traffic areas, you are going to find loose pucks here and there. For Pic, that's where he's effective. He's no fun to play against. He's lifted his game.''
Around the AHL
-- Alexandre Giroux
became the fifth player in Hershey history to hit the 50-goal mark for a season when he scored against Manchester on March 22. ... Worcester fired 113 shots on goal in three games last weekend but found the back of the net just once. ... The Grand Rapids-Toronto game March 21 was penalty-free, the first time that's happened in the AHL in a year. The Marlies also were involved in the last such game, against Lake Erie on March 20, 2008. ... Hartford's win against the Falcons on March 21 gave the Wolf Pack a sweep of their five visits to Springfield this season, the first time the Pack ever have won each of their road games in a season series against the Falcons. ... Springfield goalie Devan Dubnyk
has a .944 save percentage and two shutouts in seven starts against Worcester this season, but is just 2-5-0 in those games. ... The March 20 contest between Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was the teams' 102nd and final regular-season meeting. The Phantoms played the Penguins more times in their history than any other team except Hershey. Philadelphia finished the all-time regular-season series with a record of 52-43-2-2, along with three ties. ... Grand Rapids' Francis Pare
and Justin Abdelkader
each have 22 goals, equaling the franchise's rookie record set by Kevyn Adams
in 1996-97… Hartford has joined Milwaukee in tying the original Cleveland Barons' AHL record of six consecutive 40-win seasons. ... In just two meetings with Providence this season, Albany's Justin Peters
allowed just four goals on 106 Bruins shots. ... Mike Glumac
had recorded a point in 17 consecutive road games for Hamilton before being kept scoreless at Quad City on March 20.