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Howard's play helps surging Wings

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rookie goalie Jimmy Howard was the last player left in the Detroit Red Wings' visiting dressing room at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday after his 1-0 shootout victory over the Predators, as reporters delayed him with numerous questions.

Coach Mike Babcock walked in, looked at the group huddled around Howard and said, "Howie … hurry up and get your stuff, or I'm gonna leave you here."

With the way that Howard has played lately, that's highly doubtful.

In making 22 straight starts and getting the two-time defending Western Conference champions back firmly in playoff position – the Red Wings entered Sunday's action in sixth place – Howard, 26, has risen among the League's leaders in several categories.

His .926 save percentage ranks fourth, as does his 2.24 goals-against average. Babcock made the seemingly bold statement after the game that Howard has given the team its best goaltending in his five seasons as Detroit's coach. That group includes Manny Legace (37 wins, 2.19 GAA, .915 save percentage in 2005-06), as well as future Hall of Famers Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood, who won Detroit the Stanley Cup in 2008.

Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said that Howard has been playing with a ton of confidence.

"I think he's just been getting better and better, especially once he settled down and started feeling comfortable in net, he's been outstanding for us," Lidstrom said.

Against Nashville, Howard was playing for the second time in as many nights, as the veteran Osgood has not stepped on the ice since playing 28 minutes in relief on March 3 in a 6-3 loss to Vancouver.

Rather than showing signs of fatigue, Howard is thriving on the playing time, as his 33-save shutout performance and 10-save showing in the shootout indicated against the Predators.

He said the difference in his game is consistency.

"Just giving the guys a chance to win," he said. "It's like I was saying the other day, it's a lot easier when you're playing every single night because you get in a rhythm and everything. Even when things are a little off on a nightly basis, you think you can win the game, so I'm just in a nice little rhythm here and it's fun being here."

Perhaps Howard says such things  because he values his time in the NHL. Twenty-six is not young for a rookie and Howard, after spending three seasons at the University of Maine, spent four full seasons in the American Hockey League.

"It really, really helped," Howard said of his time with the Grand Rapids Griffins. "The extra year down there was very beneficial for me and I was able to iron out some things."

As a result, Howard has earned the respect of his teammates and the coaching staff during the team's current 12-2-1 run.

"He's a guy that's done a good job for us," Babcock said. "He's gotten us to the point we're at. The test of time is what he’s got to survive. There's been lots of goalies that have come into the League and some even won the Rookie of the Year and then you don't keep it going."

At the mention of such a thought, one can only conjure the thought of another Jim -- a Jim who also was an American and a former collegiate player. That would be Jim Carey, who won the Vezina Trophy in 1996 then was out of the NHL three years later.

But Carey was 22 when he won the Vezina and benefited from one less year of college and three less in the AHL than Howard had.

"He's gotten us to the point we're at. The test of time is what he’s got to survive. There's been lots of goalies that have come into the League and some even won the Rookie of the Year and then you don't keep it going." -- Mike Babcock
So, to Babcock, Howard appears to have what it takes for the long haul.

"That's up to him. So how mentally tough are you? How hard are you willing to train? How hard do you want to battle? How do you let water run off the duck's back, kind of thing, when it doesn't go good? To me, he's shown real good signs. I like the way he's played. He's given our team confidence. He looks like a real goalie to me, so I'm real comfortable."

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