VANCOUVER -- If there was anything that Brett Howden needed, maybe what he needed most was simply to relax. Just play the game.
Even if he could have, Howden was making no effort to mask the relief he felt at popping in a goal on Monday night in Edmonton, and shedding a little monkey from his back. In truth, though, the goal was just the most visible culmination of the work, both physical and mental, that Howden has put in during his rookie year, throughout the season but in particular lately, as he navigates the accomplishments and the growing pains of a player's first full professional season.
He is a 21-year-old who made the Rangers out of training camp, playing center in the NHL, adjusting to his first full season in the National Hockey League, and now trying to regain full speed after being forced out for a month with a sprained MCL - an injury that occurred just as he was feeling good about a few things that had been weighing on him.
David Quinn said he hoped that Howden's goal in Edmonton was "a sign of things to come." More certainly, it was an indication of the work that came before.
"It's the most up-and-down year I've had for sure," Howden, who spent his previous four seasons in junior, with WHL Moose Jaw, said on Tuesday after a skate at Rogers Arena, where the Rangers will face the Canucks on Wednesday night. "It's a long year, and I began to learn that. It's a hard league to play in. I've learned lots - I've been learning lots from the older guys here. And hopefully I can end on a high note here, with all of us. We really want to finish out the season strong."
Video: Howden on comfort level after injury recovery
Howden's season certainly took on a strong start, making his NHL debut on Opening Night, Oct. 4 at the Garden, then scoring his first NHL goal two nights later in Buffalo, and following that up with a highlight-reel, between-the-legs backhand tally in game No. 4 against San Jose to help hand his rookie head coach his first NHL win.
Since then he has hit the peaks and valleys that any rookie at the top level encounters, perhaps none more challenging than what came in January. Looking back, Howden sees a player who was doing too much pressing and, perhaps, too much thinking and not enough playing. The nine-day All-Star break was a welcome opportunity to step back, take a breath and let his game breathe, too.
"There was some games where before the break it was kind of sitting in my mind and I think that affected how I was playing," said Howden, who returned home to Winnipeg for part of the midseason hiatus. "After I came back from the break, I felt refreshed. And then I got injured."
It happened in the first period of the first game back, against the Flyers at the Garden. Howden was skating on his sixth shift and standing out with his play in the season restart when, not even 12 minutes into the game, he collided with Philly's Michael Raffl and limped to the bench. It would be March before he could play again.
Once his knee was healthy enough at least for some skating, Howden, who lost a month with Moose Jaw to an upper-body injury last season, worked tirelessly to make sure that when he returned he would be as close to game shape as possible. And even though he didn't want it, the time turned out to be an extended breather for him.
"After the injury I just came out and just decided to not worry about it and just play, and have fun. That's what I was doing and I felt like I was playing a lot better," he said. "I think each game I've felt a lot more comfortable. It's tough to come back after that long and hop right back into place, but I felt like I did a good job when I was recovering to stay in shape and stay conditioned. These last couple of games I've felt better and better."
Video: NYR@EDM: Howden swoops in and buries loose puck
His goal on Monday, the fifth of his rookie season, was a big one, too, coming early in the third period and completing the Rangers' comeback from a 2-0 deficit to split the regulation points with the Oilers. He said his teammates had a little fun with him after he scored, "but everybody was really happy for me, and it's really nice to see the support," he said. "It's a really good group here."
Count his coach among them. "It was real nice to see him get one," Quinn said. "I'm real happy for him - and he almost got another one. So hopefully this is a sign of things to come."
Howden, who will celebrate only his 22nd birthday on March 29, is wise enough to know that no matter how a player is going, good or bad or in between, the scoring numbers alone will never tell the full story - in particular for a centerman like Howden, who makes his living in all areas of the ice.
"I go back and watch the games I've played and I can tell I'd lost some confidence in the way I was playing," Howden said. "I think as of late, though, I've been playing well, and just doing little things. It's not even scoring that gives you confidence, it's being able to make plays during a game, finishing checks, little stuff that gives you success in a game, gives you confidence. That's what I tried focusing on, and kept pushing forward.
"I felt like I'd had lots of chances. It did feel nice to see one finally go in. I feel like I've been working really hard and it's nice to have it kind of pay off."
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