– The Red Wings know that goaltending will be counted on more than ever when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin on Wednesday. And Jimmy Howard
will have to be up to the task.
It will be the second playoffs for the 27-year-old Howard, and Wings coach Mike Babcock said the confidence level of him heading into his second postseason compared to his first has been like, “Night and day”.
“Number 1 is that he’s not trying to prove to us or to prove to himself,” Babcock said. “He knows, and we know that we think he’s a good goalie.”
Howard will be facing the same first-round opponent when he begins his second playoff campaign. Last spring, the Coyotes scored 17 goals on Howard, and the Wings had to travel to Phoenix for a season-saving Game 7 win.
“I don’t know what it was, to be honest,” Howard said of his nerves then. “It was just a new unfamiliar situation. I had played in a national championship game, a world championships game, the under-18s and the World Junior Championships and everything like that, but when you’re playing for something that you’ve dreamed about your whole life, and then all of a sudden you’re there, it’s different, it’s sort of surreal.”
Howard posted a 5-7 record in last year’s playoffs, along with a .915 save percentage and 2.75 goals-against average. Now in his second full season, the Wings’ young goaltender expects to improve on those numbers.
“I feel calmer,” Howard said. “Last year, I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s one thing to be a Black Ace, it’s another thing to actually be out there and playing. The intensity definitely picks up, a lot more guys crashing the net and a lot more scrums in front of the net. You have to be that much more focused.”
Yet even Howard admitted that there was a point in time this season where he was struggling to make saves. His regular-season numbers declined from last season, as his save percentage dropped 18-points to .908, and his goals-against increased to 2.79. However, he recorded 37 wins, same as last season.
“I hit a hiccup there in Christmastime,” Howard said. “It wasn’t pretty. Pucks just weren’t hitting me like they were in the beginning of the year. For some reason they went in. The key thing in those situations is that you don’t change anything, you don’t change your style. You just keep battling and tweak things here or there.”
Yet Howard’s struggles midway through the season hasn’t done anything to affect the locker room’s confidence in him.
“We have a lot of confidence in Howie,” captain Nicklas Lidstrom
said. “He’s been playing well for us and we’re going rely on him.”
Babcock said he has been pleased with how his goalie has handled his adversity, and pointed out that Howard has improved since agreeing to a two-year extension on Feb. 28.
“We think he’s really played well when we’ve played against good goalies at the other end,” Babcock said. “He’s going to play against a real good goalie in (Ilya Bryzgalov), and you know, I think the kid’s prepared. He’s battled hard. He’s played really well with the exception of a couple months when the wheels were off the tracks there, but that happens to everybody sometimes, and you know I think since his (contract) negotiation’s been done he’s been excellent, so good for him.”
Howard said that after going through a postseason where he wasn’t sure what was going to happen next – and having to frequently consult veteran goalie Chris Osgood – he expects to feel a sense of calm this spring.
“There’s not a lot of ‘what-ifs’ going through your mind this time around,” Howard said. “Last year, trying to predict things in your mind of how things are going to happen, and I was asking a lot more questions to the coaches and to Oz everything like that to try to better myself, and this year, you know having the taste of the playoffs, it will make me that much more focused.”