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Howard sparks Red Wings' turnaround

Bruins must find way to defeat Detroit's hot goalie Thursday

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

What's that saying again? That's why they play the games.

Exhibit A: Jimmy Howard.

Exhibit B: Detroit Red Wings.

Exhibit C: Boston Bruins.

Who knew?

Detroit can clinch a Stanley Cup Playoff berth for the 25th consecutive season with a win against the Bruins at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS, FS-D, NESNplus). At the same time, the Bruins could move to the brink of elimination with a regulation loss coupled with a Philadelphia Flyers win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Video: PHI@DET: Howard kick's away Streit's shot

If that were to happen, Boston would need to win its last game of the season against the Ottawa Senators and hope the Flyers lose their last two in regulation.

Everything seemed so different just over two weeks ago, when Howard and the Red Wings seemed destined for failure while the Bruins were actually, and in hindsight maybe shockingly, feeling quite good despite losing three in a row in regulation on a California road trip.

For Detroit, Petr Mrazek's previously sterling play was deteriorating and the Red Wings' streak of reaching the playoffs was in serious jeopardy.

For Boston, a strong effort against the Anaheim Ducks that was washed away by a 4-0 loss and a dominant finish in a 2-1 loss against the Los Angeles Kings were, for some reason, being taken as positive signs even though they yielded negative results.

Video: DET@PHI: Howard stops Giroux's one-timer

Turning to Howard, who also had been struggling, such as allowing four goals against the Columbus Blue Jackets and six goals on 30 shots in a combined 45:22 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers, didn't exactly inspire confidence in Detroit.

Boston was beaming with misguided confidence.

Look at Howard now. Look at the Red Wings and Bruins now.

Howard has won four of his past five decisions, including a 30-save shutout in a 3-0 win against the Flyers on Wednesday, to put the Red Wings in the driver's seat to the playoffs.

Although Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill wouldn't announce his starting goalie for Thursday, it would be shocking if wasn't Howard. He has earned the start. Mrazek should just sit, watch and learn how a veteran does it.

Video: PHI@DET: Howard flashes the leather on Couturier

Howard has a .937 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average in his five appearances, including four starts, since March 26, when he allowed three goals on 14 shots in relief of Mrazek during what at the time appeared to be a soul-crushing 7-2 loss to the Penguins.

The two impressive parts about Howard's hot streak are: 1) how he's done it with basically no room for error in the standings, and 2) how he still had to stomach Blashill giving a vote of confidence to Mrazek despite his poor play.

Mrazek gave way to Howard against Pittsburgh after he allowed four goals on 27 shots in 35:11. It was the second time in four starts he allowed four goals and the fourth straight start in which he allowed at least three.

Blashill, though, trusted Mrazek enough after the game against Pittsburgh to put him back in two games later against the Montreal Canadiens, even though it was Howard who helped stabilize the Red Wings with 18 saves in a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres the night before. Yes, Howard allowed two goals in the last three minutes, but Detroit got back on the right track with that win.

Mrazek was, in Blashill's mind, the guy who was going to get Detroit into the playoffs. Fortunately for the Red Wings, Blashill's judgment didn't stay clouded, especially after Mrazek allowed two goals on seven shots in the first 11:25 against the Canadiens.

Video: PHI@DET: Howard knocks Giroux's shot over the net

Howard couldn't help the Red Wings finish off the Canadiens after a strong second period, but he has surged since. And he was perfect against the Flyers.

Now the Bruins have to be as close to perfect as they can be to get into the playoffs. For the longest time, they controlled their playoff destiny. Howard and the Red Wings took it out of their hands Wednesday.

The Bruins, not surprisingly, were unable to use what they felt were strong-enough-to-win performances in California as a springboard to success. Teams that lose three straight shouldn't feel as good as the Bruins did when they arrived at Madison Square Garden to play the New York Rangers on March 23.

They lost that game 5-2 and followed it up with a 4-1 loss against the Florida Panthers at home. Their decline has been steep. They are 2-7-1 since heading to San Jose to start that road trip.

For all intents and purposes, the Bruins should have a significant edge Thursday. They're the rested team. They're the home team. But like Howard and the Red Wings just over two weeks ago, nothing about their play of late inspires confidence.

Then again, that's why they play the games.

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