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Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard extends season with success for Team USA

Howard got to use a mask originally designed for the 2014 Olympics

by Brian Hedger @BrianHedger / Special to DetroitRedWings.com

COLOGNE, Germany - It was just sitting there in his basement, collecting dust on a shelf full of memorabilia.

Right next to the mask Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard wore for the 2014 Winter Classic was one that he used for the U.S. in the 2017 IIHF World Championship, which ended for Team USA with a 2-0 loss to Finland on Thursday.

It was designed by Ray Bishop, Howard's mask painter, and was originally intended for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Instead, Howard was Team USA's third goalie in the Olympics and didn't wear it other than practices.

"I was just like, 'You know what? I'm gonna use it,'" said Howard, who finished the world championship with a 4-2 record, 1.86 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and one shutout. "It was just sitting there with my Winter Classic mask. I only got to wear it in practice over in Sochi, so I was like, 'It's coming off the shelf.'"

Thanks to that decision, Howard's Olympic mask now has something other than an eye-catching design with a large bald eagle on the crest.

It has a little more sentimental value after Howard helped the U.S. rattle off six straight wins to finish first in a preliminary group that included Sweden and Russia.

The victory against Russia, on Tuesday at LANXESS Arena, was especially sweet. Howard only made 16 saves in a 5-3 win, but there were some real beauties among them.

The biggest happened late in the third period on a shorthanded breakaway by Artemi Panarin, the Chicago Blackhawks' high-scoring left wing.

Team USA had just taken a 4-3 lead on a goal by New York Islanders forward Anders Lee, and Howard came up with the save of the game.

Panarin streaked down the ice toward him, boosted by a thunderous roar from a pro-Russia crowd, and tried to put the puck between Howard's pads. It was a move Howard had seen before, after watching Panarin's highlights on NHL Network.

He wasn't fooled, closed the five-hole in time and sealed a big win for the U.S. -- which hadn't won six straight games in a world championship since 1990.

Red Wings teammate Dylan Larkin had a front-row seat for that stop after unsuccessfully trying to close the gap on Panarin.

"I was skating as hard as I could to backcheck, but he had a good head start on all of us, and kind of shocked us on the power play," Larkin said. "Howie won us the game. It was real exciting, and a great moment for him. We were all happy for him."

Howard was thrilled, too, but not just by his save. That game, played against a powerhouse team in a building filled with raucous Russian fans, was a perfect explanation for Howard's decision to seek out an invitation from USA Hockey for this tournament.

After missing 33 games for the Red Wings with an MCL sprain, the 33-year old veteran wasn't ready to begin the offseason in April.

"Jimmy wanted to come to this tournament," said Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who ran the bench for the U.S. "He made that known early in the process, once we were eliminated from the playoffs. I just think for his own sake, he'd played so well until he got hurt, and he played very well when he got back. He just wanted to keep playing hockey."

Larkin saw that desire as far back as last summer, when Howard put in a lot of work to sharpen his game.

He hasn't stopped working since, despite the injury and the work that required to rehabilitate it.

"Even with the injury, he's had a really good season," Larkin said. "He kept us in a lot of games in Detroit, and then to have the injury, everyone was feeling for him. He hasn't taken any time off. He didn't even take the bye week off in Detroit. He was still skating and stayed for the All-Star break, rehabbing. Then, after the season, he skated all the way up until this tournament. You can see it paying off for him, too. You look at that game against the Russians, he kept us in it."

Doing it with that bald eagle on his head was even better.

"That was an unbelievable atmosphere (against Russia), the whole game," Howard said. "This whole tournament, the way the fans have come out and supported their teams from each country, it's amazing and it makes the games a lot of fun."

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