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Howard is sharp again in SO win

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Tomas Tatar collected his 24th goal of the season on this play in the second period, giving the Red Wings a 1-0 lead. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

CHICAGO – A bona fide all-star in the first half of the season, Jimmy Howard, who missed five weeks with a groin injury, appears to have reclaimed his early-season proficiency between the pipes.

He even won a shootout for the first time in nearly a year.

“It feels good. Long time coming and it feels extra special against a group that’s so good and talented out there,” said Howard, who was simply magnificent in stopping 32 shots and lifting the Wings to a 3-2 shootout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday at United Center.

Before his Jan. 10 injury, Howard was among the league leaders in wins (16), goals-against average (2.11) and save percentage (.920), earning himself his second All-Star Game selection in his six-season career. He’s now 17-8-8 with a 2.10 GAA and .921 save percentage.

Wednesday, the Wings’ goalie was back to himself, and it certainly helped that the win – the first in the SO since stymying Edmonton, 2-1, on March 14, 2014 – came against the Wings’ nemesis.

Howard had lost seven straight shootouts this season, including his last one Saturday night to Winnipeg.

“It definitely does,” Howard said. “They’re a talented group they send out there in (the) shootout. Playing them for so long in the West and knowing their moves, I shouldn’t say it makes it easier, but it does in a sense because in the back of your head you got the feeling of what’s going to transpire out there.”

Jonathan Toews scored the Hawks’ lone shootout goal, banging a shot off the post and into the net. Patrick Kane’s attempt glanced off the post, and Howard stopped Patrick Sharp on Chicago’s last try.

Gustav Nyquist and Thomas Tatar tallied in the shootout for Detroit.

“Shootout is like roulette. You never know,” Tatar said. “We don’t have really good stats this year but we are glad we beat this team in the shootout. There are really successful and it’s a big win for us.”

The Wings knew they couldn’t permit the Blackhawks to dominate the pace through the neutral zone. But that’s what occurred for much of the 60 minutes. Getting through the neutral zone unimpeded was definitely a challenge for the Red Wings. When they did manage to slip through the middle of the ice and into the offensive zone, it usually resulted in a one (shot) and done scenario.

The Blackhawks won practically every battle in the corners and every race to loose pucks, though, as the game went on, the Wings were better at combatting Chicago’s forecheck. Still, the Blackhawks held a 25-14 edge in shots though 40 minutes.

“I think we can elevate way more than we did tonight,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We still had too many guys that weren’t with us here tonight, so we need all hands on deck to be successful. We were fortunate we had some guys really play big for us, including Howie. But we got to be better than we were tonight.”

Detroit dialed it up in the third period and overtime, outshooting the Hawks, 14-9, in the final 25 minutes.

Still, the Blackhawks had a hefty advantage in scoring chances. But the biggest blown opportunities came when Bryan Bickell and Toews each misfired in the second period. During a scramble in front of Howard, Bickell fired a shot over the empty net midway through the period.

A few minutes later, Toews skated in on the left side before trying a wraparound move, but the puck slid parallel along the goal line without hitting anything, including Howard, and harmless exited out the opposite side of the crease.

The Wings broke the scoreless affairs when Tatar produced his 24th goal of the season. He was in the right spot when Corey Crawford swept Darren Helm’s initial offering a side and right onto the blade of Tatar’s stick at 16:10 of the middle frame.

Unfortunately for the Wings, the Blackhawks drew even when Brandon Saad scored 39 seconds later, though it appeared Marian Hossa was off-sides. The on-ice officials did not whistle the play dead, Howard was screened by his own defenseman, and Saad scored on a 40-foot blast.

Howard was called upon to make anther quality stop in the opening minutes of the third period when he flashed a leg pad to stop Marcus Kruger from close range as well as a follow up rebound.

The Red Wings regained the lead late in the third when Helm scored his 13th goal, his career high, at 17:54. But for the second time, the Blackhawks scored an equalizing goal within a minute of Detroit grabbing a lead.

Chicago’s second goal went in off of Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. It was credited to Kris Versteeg at 18:37.

The win is big for the Wings who returned home after the game, but will head out again Friday to resume their six-game road trip to Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Nashville.

“It’s huge,” Howard said. “Giving away points the other night against Winnipeg and then losing a hard fought game against Montreal can get you upset a little bit, but starting off the road trip with two points is a good feeling. Now we can enjoy it for a couple days and get ready for Dallas because this road trip is going to get a lot harder.”

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