DETROIT – As far as Jimmy Howard is concerned, he passed his physical test Friday night.
The Red Wings’ goalie returned to the lineup for the first time since a reoccurring sprain left MCL forced him to miss the past five games.
But in a game that the Wings desperately needed points to stay in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, Howard was spectacular against the lethal-shooting Washington Capitals.
Howard made 26 saves and stopped all seven Capitals’ shots in the shootout to lift the Red Wings to a 4-3 victory at Joe Louis Arena.
“I thought I played pretty good,” said Howard, who sat out eight games in December after he originally suffered the knee injury. “I’ve got to look at the video and see how the third one went in because everyone in the building knows where the puck wants to go there and where he wants to shoot it but I’m not 100 percent (sure) and where it went in on me.”
The third goal was the game-tying goal by Joel Ward with seven seconds left in the third period. The play was set up by the league’s leading scorer, Alex Ovechkin.
But Howard came up big in overtime, making two saves, and in the shootout, against a Capitals’ squad that has won eight shootouts this season.
“We needed the win,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We found a way to win, which is great. I would have liked to get the two points in regulation so they got none. We just missed a lane there at the end and Ovechkin's a dangerous guy, as you know. We had some real good opportunities that we didn't bury, so we gotta focus on that in practice and finish on our opportunities. But I thought we played a good game.”
The Capitals’ first three shooters in the skills competition can give most goalies nightmares, but Howard didn’t flinch, stopping Eric Fehr, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in order.
“I made a conscious effort to takeaway his shot,” Howard said of Ovechkin’s backhand shot to the stick side. “His shot is extremely lethal and just the way he shoots the puck, the way he cups it at times on his stick makes it hard where it’s coming off. I just tried to come out and cut his angle off.”
Equally as dangerous is Backstrom, who tried to lift a backhand shot over Howard’s glove but missed when the puck clanked off the right post.
“I think it’s an exciting time facing them in the shootout,” Howard said. “The last time Ovi went to his forehand and so did Backstrom so maybe they were trying to show something different. I was trying to takeaway the blocker side on Backstrom because that’s where he beat me last time in went in.”
Howard also denied Casey Wellman, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat and Jay Beagle.
On the other side of the rink, Patrick Eaves scored the Wings’ only shootout goal in the seventh round, which proved to be the winner.
The Red Wings and Capitals will meet for the final time this season when the Eastern Conference rivals play at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon.
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