DETROIT – Jimmy Howard has declared himself ready to return, but his coach intends to give rookie Petr Mrazek at least one more start when the Red Wings play in Pittsburgh Wednesday.
Mrazek has posted a 8-1-0 record with a 2.54 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in 10 starts during Howard’s absence. Though Mrazek has given up just two goals in the Wings’ current three-game winning streak.
It’s a pretty easy decision for Mike Babcock, who said he’s playing the guy with the hot hand over the guy who’s coming back from a slightly torn groin muscle.
“Howie gets another week,” Babcock said. “Howie will get an opportunity to get ready to go. Howie’s our starting goalie. There’s nothing wrong with practice. We like to win games. We play the guy who’s winning games.”
Babcock said Howard will back up Mrazek in Pittsburgh, and that Jonas Gustavsson, who returned last week from a shoulder injury, will be a healthy scratch for that game.
Just because the Wings weren’t returning Mrazek to AHL Grand Rapids this week should not suggest that the 22-year-old has leapfrogged Howard and Gustavsson to take over the No. 1 spot.
However, this revelation piqued the curiosity of a couple reporters, who, after the team’s Monday morning practice at Joe Louis Arena, seemed to question whether or not a controversy was taking shape.
One local reporter asked, “Usually when a player who plays regularly comes back from injury you put him in, is this a reflection on Petr or …?”
“Pete, if I’m not mistaken, is winning,” Babcock said. “That’s what we’ve always done here. We’re trying to win all the games. That’s what we’re doing. This way Howie is fully engaged in practice, getting bumped and getting knocked around. He’ll have an opportunity to prepare and hopefully play on Saturday. Pete’s playing Wednesday, that’s it.”
Clearly, Mrazek was delighted by Monday’s news.
“It’s nice to play next game and get the chance, so I think it’s going to be a good game against Pittsburgh and I’m real excited about that,” he said. “It’s nice to be around these guys here and practice with them, so I’m happy I’m here.”
While it’s unusual for teams to carry three healthy goaltenders the Wings are afforded the roster spot since forward Johan Franzen (concussion) remains on injured reserve.
The Wings are among the league leaders in fewest goals allowed this season – they’re ranked No. 5 surrendering just 2.36 goals per game – and that’s in part, to the exceptional depth they’re getting between the pipes.
“All three of them have played great for us this year,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “I know that both Howie and Monster have been out with injuries but beforehand they played great. And Mrazek has really proven what he can do over this last stretch when Howie went down. So we know we’ve got something really great going in net.”
Watching games has been the most difficult part for Howard, who was enjoying a remarkable season prior to his injury at Washington. Just hours before the Jan. 10 game his selection to play in the All-Star Game had been announced.
“I hate sitting down here in the dressing room watching,” said Howard, who is 16-7-7 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
Fortunately, the Wings continue to win, which has made Howard’s life a little easier.
“We’re getting contributions from everyone,” Howard said. “We’re not just relying on certain guys night in and night out. There’s a swagger about the team. When things are going right you’ve earned to have your confidence up. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve witnessed around in the dressing room from being out. This place is just oozing with confidence and we just have to keep that going.”