DETROIT – The Red Wings are one of two teams that haven’t lost back-to-back games in regulation this season.
Locked in a logjam among seven teams separated by six points in the Eastern Conference, Jimmy Howard understands the importance of not dropping a second straight when the Red Wings host the Winnipeg Jets Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.
“It seems like you drop a game one night and everyone around you wins,” Howard said. “So we’ve got to find away right from the get-go here tomorrow night, get on top of them because they’re a fast, physical team that likes to get in on the forecheck.”
The Red Wings are the hottest team in the Atlantic Division, winning eight of their last 10 games. Third-string goalie Petr Mrazek deserves credit for the yeoman’s job he did to keep the team on course in the standings in Howard’s absence. However, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said it’s vitally important the No. 1 goaltender immediately regain the rhythm he had prior to his Jan. 10 groin injury.
“We don’t want to wait two months, though, we want him back at ‘er tomorrow,” Babcock said. “Obviously, he’s a real good player for us, been real important for us, especially at the start of the year, before we earned our confidence. I think Howie was our best player in that first 10 games. So it’s important for him to get up and running and us to have him in the net and feel good about ourselves.”
Howard was having a fantastic season before the injury that forced him to miss the next 11 games. He has compiled a 16-7-7 record with a 2.09 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 33 games played.
“Jimmy’s our starting goalie, our No. 1 goalie,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “I know he’s itching to get back. He looks healthy. He looks back to normal. He’s having fun in the locker room. We’re happy to get him back. He was playing really well before he got hurt. We’re excited. We know he’s excited. It’s important for us.”
Howard played the third period Wednesday after Mrazek allowed four goals in a 4-1 loss at Pittsburgh. Howard didn’t get a ton of work, stopping all four shots faced in 20 minutes, but it was a good test before he makes his first start in five weeks.
“You can work out and practice as much as you want, but until you get in there and you get a taste of the speed again,” he said. “You sort of forget what it’s like, so it was good. I just treated it like a practice.”
Following the puck in a chaotic defensive zone can be a challenge for any goalie, but even more so for one returning from a lengthy layoff.
“Just tracking the puck, I find, is the biggest thing,” Howard said. “Going from practice and feeling good in practice and then all of a sudden there are 10 guys out there in front of you, so that’s the biggest thing. Coach has done quite a few battle drills here this week with guys in front of me, whether it’s penalty kill or power play or five-on-five situations, so I treated those as a game-like situation.”
Mrazek was 8-2-0 while Howard and Jonas Gustavsson recovered from injury. The rookie’s immediate future is unknown, though he will serve as Howard’s backup Saturday.
"I didn’t have to rush back and I have to thank Petr for that," Howard said. "He did a tremendous job for us for the whole month of January and a little bit here into February and it’s put us into a good spot. So I just have to pick up where he left off. ... I can't wait to get out there tomorrow night.”
With Johan Franzen on injured reserve, the Wings have room to keep Mrazek on the roster, however, he may be better off getting more consistent work at AHL Grand Rapids.
“I think he’s got to play for sure,” Babcock said. “But let’s just get our goaltending situation sorted out here and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do.”
REFURBISHED JETS: This week, Winnipeg made the first significant deal prior to the March 2 trade deadline by acquiring big, right-handed shooting defenseman Tyler Myers and forward Drew Stafford in a seven-player trade with Buffalo.
In exchange, the Sabres received Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane.
Currently fourth in the Central Division standings, the Jets are seeking just their second postseason berth in the franchise’s 15 season history.
“To me, they’ve been revamping themselves for a long time,” Babcock said. “When you look at the group they have on the back, they really built a back end and if you know their prospects they got lots coming. I’ve known Chevy (Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff) a long time, he’s a smart guy and they’re going about it with good patience and suddenly they have maybe the best right-handed back end in hockey as far as the three guys they got on the right. So they’ve done a real good job there and no question they’re deep.”
HALL-BOUND: Sergei Fedorov became the 24th Red Wing to enter the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame during an induction ceremony Thursday at Sound Bound inside the MotorCity Casino and Hotel.
General manager Ken Holland said the Wings wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup in 1997 without Fedorov’s contributions, not to mention his four game-winning goals.
Fedorov remains in the top five of many statistical categories in franchise history, including goals (400), power-play goals (117), points (954), and games played (908).
“He certainly was a star. He had elite skill,” said Babcock coached Fedorov in Anaheim during the 2003-04 season. “Real good man, I had a chance to coach him in Anaheim. He was an elite performer in the league for a long time, whether he was playing center ice or playing defense or representing his country he was a great player and I really enjoyed Sergei as a person.”
Fedorov’s induction Thursday is just a precursor to a possible announcement this summer when he, and former teammate Nicklas Lidstrom, are expected to be first-ballot inductees when the Hockey Hall of Fame's 2015 class is revealed.