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Howard's chance

by Dana Wakiji / Detroit Red Wings
Andreas Athanasiou will be reunited with Anthony Mantha, with whom he played a lot in Grand Rapids. They're expected to be on a line with Luke Glendening. (Photo by Getty Images)

DETROIT -- It has not been the easiest of seasons for Jimmy Howard.

The veteran goaltender started out on equal footing with Petr Mrazek but Mrazek's superior performance in January earned him the No. 1 spot.

After a good start to the season, Howard struggled as Mrazek excelled.

In October, Howard was 2-2-1 with a 2.21 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.

In November, he was 4-2-0 with a 2.56 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.

In December, Howard was 1-1-3 with a 3.22 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.

Then Howard played just twice in January as Mrazek went 7-1-1 with a 1.32 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.

With Mrazek struggling now, the Wings are turning to Howard to help steady the ship, starting tonight against the Minnesota Wild.

"I’ve got lots of belief in his character," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "I’ve got lots of belief in the work that he put in. When they went through it where he was struggling, or the team was struggling in front of him, he went to work and made sure that he earned confidence by putting the work in. I think earned confidence comes from knowing you’ve done the work to succeed and knowing you have the skill set to succeed and nobody’s ever wavered on the skill set side, and he put the work in to make sure he was ready when he got opportunities. Slowly he had those opportunities and I think he looks like a confident goalie out there."

In 17 starts against the Wild, Howard is 11-3-3 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .907 save percentage.

As for Mrazek, he's working to get back to the level he expects of himself.

"He put tons of work in this morning and getting yourself where you put work in and you feel good about yourself walking off the ice, and I think he did walking off the ice today," Blashill said. "So that puts him in a position when called upon, whenever that is, the more days you walk off the ice you feel good about yourself, the better chance you’re gonna have to be successful."

Blashill said he would decide on the starting goaltender for Saturday's game in Toronto on Saturday.

DEFENSE FIRST: The goaltenders are the last line of defense but that doesn't mean stopping the pucks is solely their responsibility.

"We've got to be way better defensively for sure," Gustav Nyquist said. "We've given up too many goals, let up way too many clear chances. It's not the goalies, it's us as a team just giving away free, easy chances. So that's probably the biggest thing we've got to tighten up here the last five games."

As a team, the Wings' goals-against average in March is 3.49.

"It seems like it's been good one game and then the next game we give up way too many chances again," Nyquist said. "It's something we keep working on and something we've talked a lot about and something we need to be better at to make the playoffs."

POWER PLAY WORKING: The good news for the Wings is that their power play has improved.

After struggling much of the season, the Wings have now scored at least one power-play goal in six straight games.

That has moved the Wings to a tie for 14th in the league, hitting on 18.9 percent of their power-play opportunities.

"We're doing a good job right now of shooting the puck and having guys in front," Nyquist said. "We've had a few rebound goals lately off second and third chances where we retrieved pucks pretty well. Right now it's nice to see the puck going in. When you have a few games where you're successful, you start feeling a little better about it. I thought we created when we weren't scoring, we were creating chances but the puck just wasn't going in at that point. Hopefully this can keep going here."

REUNITED: In practice Thursday and during the morning skate Friday, Blashill had Anthony Mantha skating on a line with Luke Glendening and Andreas Athanasiou.

Mantha and Athanasiou together is not a new thing.

"They have really good chemistry together," Blashill said. "Having Glennie in the middle – if that line plays together – gives them a real trust factor from my end, which ultimately allows you to get on the ice a little bit more. So, again, we’re just looking for the best mix to give ourselves a best chance to win."

Both Athanasiou and Mantha are looking forward to being on the same line again.

"Played with him last couple of years, little bit of chemistry going," Athanasiou said. "These last couple practices been good playing with him, kind of building that chemistry back. He’s a lot of fun to play with."

Said Mantha: "Him and (Dylan) Larkin are probably the two fastest skaters in the league. Having AA on our line it changes a little bit how you play with him. You just need to consider all the speed he has, so if you put it in an open area you know he’s going to be there first. Just the little details that you get used to when you play with a player that fast."

As for Glendening, he feels all he has to do is facilitate.

"Him and AA are so skilled I just have to be responsible defensively," Glendening said. "Just be at the net, be hard, get them pucks and just try to help them in any way I can."

Blashill said that Mantha could also likely play with Pavel Datsyuk at some point during the game as he had been doing.

HAPPY FOR GRANATO: Wisconsin officially announced the hiring of Wings assistant Tony Granato as their head coach on the Wings' off-day Wednesday.

"I’m ecstatic for him," Blashill said. "I think certainly, I’ll miss him here but I’m ecstatic for him to have the opportunity. I think he’s gonna do a phenomenal job. I think the staff was a home run, and I also think he’s gonna love it. He has an impact on people, everyone he’s met, he has an unbelievable impact on them and now het gets to have a chance impact on young guys, 18 to 24 years old. He’ll have lasting impressions on them and lasting friendships from it, and it will be, I think, something he really enjoy and succeed at."

Granato will remain with the Wings until the end of their season.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MAC: Happy birthday to Darren McCarty, who turns 44 today.

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