DETROIT – It was an unusual sight, something rarely seen at Joe Louis Arena.
It’s not often that a puck strikes a metal post behind the Zamboni gates and dangerously ricochets in front of Jimmy Howard.
But that’s exactly what happened before the second period reached the midway point, resulting in a couple of scoring chances for the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night.
Fortunately, the Red Wings’ goalie was on his toes as he made a couple of saves on the freakish play to secure Detroit’s two-goal cushion over the Phoenix Coyotes at Joe Louis Arena.
“It’s one of those one-in-a-million puck bounces when it goes in a different direction than what everyone is assuming and they have guys flying in,” Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “Just huge. That’s what (Howard) has been doing for us all year when we need it.”
The Wings had plenty of stars in Monday’s must-win game, including captain Henrik Zetterberg, who had his first three-assist performance of the season, as well as Justin Abdelkader, who was a disruptive force out there while collecting a game-high six hits.
But Howard was a rock in the Wings’ 4-0 win, stopping 34 shots and earning his fourth shutout victory of the season. Certainly, his heads-up play of the game helped the Wings hold onto momentum when the Coyotes seemed to be gaining energy.
The strange play began when Phoenix center Antoine Vermette rimmed the puck around the Wings’ net. As the puck scooted along the ledge atop of the dashboard it struck a stanchion that holds the glass in place. The jetted out to the right of Howard as Vermette and Phoenix captain Shane Doan crashed the net.
Both Coyotes forwards registered shots on the play, but Howard managed to turn away Vermette’s attempt followed by Doan’s rebound offering.
“Anytime the puck's up on the glass in here, you gotta be careful, especially with the stanchions out there,” Howard said afterwards. “You never know what you're going to get off the Zamboni door, not only in this building but in any building. You just gotta be alert and I just try to stay in the net whenever it's up on the glass.”
Kronwall added: “It doesn’t happen too often here, but you never know. You have to be alert all of the time. You can’t read those plays. You just have to be aware and react.”
While Howard was shutting the door on the Coyotes’ dwindling playoff hopes, the Red Wings’ special teams were making sure that the home team remained in the postseason hunt, scoring three power-play goals for the first time in two months.
“I thought our power play was the star of the game,” Howard said. “For them to go out there and get three power-play goals for us, especially when the power play hasn't been all that great, for them to do that hopefully we gain some confidence going into Wednesday night.”
The Red Wings, who host the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, are now one-point behind Columbus for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Detroit also has played one less game the Blue Jackets. Still, Detroit holds its own destiny and can secure the final playoff spot – and 22nd straight postseason appearance – if it wins its three remaining game.
The formula for getting into the playoffs is simple, and the Wings understand the importance of the streak, which began in the 1991 playoffs, coach Mike Babcock said.
“They're big boys, they understand what's going on more than anybody,” he said. “They make their living here and they got a lot of pride in wearing the sweater. I think our commitment to detail and our commitment to process has been very good. Just because people on the outside who don't live here don't see it the same way doesn't change what we think. We're a different team than we've been. That doesn't mean we're not working and competing.”
It will also help to get more performances like Monday’s out of Howard, who must carry this team if they expect to be postseason qualifiers.
“He has to,” Babcock said. “It's not about 'can,' he has to. There's no option.”
THREE STARS: 3, Jimmy Howard, DET (34 saves, W); 2, Henrik Zetterberg, DET (3 assists); 1, Damien Brunner, DET (1 goal, 1 assist).
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose