DETROIT – There’s no question that goaltending carried the Red Wings through the first half of the season.
The remarkable performances, particularly by Jimmy Howard, sparked debate about Detroit’s chances at winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the league’s best overall record – something that wasn’t even up for discussion prior to opening night.
But now there’s a dent in the goaltending armor and it’s sounding alarm bells around Hockeytown as the Wings, who have nine games remaining on the regular-season schedule, maintain a slim five-point lead over Ottawa and Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division.
Following back-to-back losses Arizona and San Jose – where the Wings were outscored 11-8 – coach Mike Babcock promised again Friday afternoon that everyone on the team will find solutions to remedy the defensive dilemma.
“We all got to be better,” he said. “We talked about the fact that we got to be way better in net. We got to be better on the back. We got to be better up front. But the puck’s in our net all the time. We’ve scored eight goals in the last two games and we’ve chased both games from start to finish. Our urgency and our focus in all positions … it’s easy in life to blame everyone else. When you’re the coach you have to look at yourself. When you’re a goalie you have to look at yourself, and when you’re a D-man you have to look at yourself, or a forward. The bottom line is you got to trust one another. You all got to do your part. We got to do our part better.”
Babcock plans to start Petr Mrazek Saturday afternoon when the Wings host the Tampa Bay Lightning at Joe Louis Arena. Mrazek, who replaced Howard after the first period of Thursday’s loss, has given the Wings a lift at times during his recall stints from AHL Grand Rapids this season.
But Babcock isn’t ready to hand the keys over to the 23-year-old rookie.
“I like winning. That’s it. It’s real simple,” Babcock said. “Everybody in the National Hockey League knows that the best guys get to play and if you’re playing the best you get to play. Our players start each game knowing that. It’s no different. Anytime you’re struggling as a player it’s your job to work extra hard. When you get your opportunity it’s to seize your opportunity. So it’s no different for Pete Mrazek. He gets an opportunity. He’s got to seize it. We just watch and they decide who plays, not us. Everyone thinks the coach decides. All the coach does is observe, (it’s) no different than you do. He just does it from a different perspective. And then the guys who play the best get to play.”
Babcock did not say who the goaltender will be Sunday when the Wings face off against the New York Islanders for the last time at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders are moving to Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season.
In his last two starts at Pittsburgh and Florida, Mrazek posted a 1-1-0 mark with a 2.01 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
Never short on confidence, Mrazek is anxious for a second chance against the Lightning.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Mrazek, who surrendered five goals tot he Lightning and was pulled after 40 minutes from his Jan. 29 start at Tampa Bay. “We’ve lost two games in a row at home so going into the third game, being starting goalie is nice, but it’s one game tomorrow and we have to go game by game and see what happens.”
Defenseman Niklas Kronwall said there is something the Wings can do to help out their besieged goaltenders.
“Stop turning the puck over would help,” he said. “Take care of the puck a lot better than we have. Securing it the first time we get the puck on our stick. Making sure we get out of our zone quick and play more in their zone.”
It was goaltending and zone transition that catapulted the Wings to the top of the Eastern Conference standings earlier in the season. Led by Howard, Detroit cruised to a 22-10-9 record through the first 41 games. However, following a six-game winning streak in January, the Red Wings have gone 11-12-3 and have been outscored 78-68 in that 26-game span.
“Absolutely, (the goalies) stole games for us,” Kronwall said. “They’re a big reason why we’re at where we’re at right now. We know it’s there. We know as players we can do a lot better than we have been. So as a unit, as a team, we have to be better.”
Howard hasn’t been his same sharp self since returning from a groin injury in February. He played very well against Tampa Bay and St. Louis, allowing just three goals total in the two games. But his last two starts won’t be included on his career highlight reel.
“No different than anyone else in the NHL,” Howard said of his struggles. “Everyone goes through this during the course of a season. A little blessing in disguise that it’s happening now and not 2-3 weeks from now.”
Howard said he feels healthy and the groin, which was slightly torn on Jan. 10, isn’t an issue. For the most part, he’s mechanics in the crease have been fine, though he’s having some problem tracking the flight of the puck.
“After going over the video tape and talking to goalie coach Jim Bedard it’s just following the puck with my eyes. It’s just that simple,” Howard said. “With a goalie if you’re not following the puck to the best of your abilities and you’re behind that split second it can make a difference.
“It’s following the puck. That’s key. Especially when you get big bodies in front of you you’ve got to focus on the puck. You can’t lose sight of the puck. Pucks are going to go in in the NHL. We all know that. It’s about brushing it off and trying to make that next save for the guys.”