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Wings' Howard puts last season behind him

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

Considering how long and grinding an NHL season can be, it's jarring when it ends in an instant.

The Red Wings know this well, after Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook scored in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals to end the Red Wings' season. It was a particularly bitter sting considering the Wings had the Presidents' Trophy winners on the ropes after taking a 3-1 series lead.

Some players might replay the final goal in their head all summer wondering what could have been after such a rough postseason exit, but Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is not among them.

"Not at all," Howard told last week. "Hockey is a game of breaks and momentum shifts and a game where something like that happens. It can be totally out of your control and the puck will roll in the net. It's just one of those things where it's frustrating and it's disappointing, but at the same time it's nobody's fault. You learn from it and you move on.

"The stars were aligned for Chicago that night."

While it's a knee-jerk reaction to assign blame for the goal that eliminated Detroit -- some pundits questioned the defensive positioning of Niklas Kronwall, who screened Howard on Seabrook's goal -- it's awfully tough to make Howard the scapegoat for the Red Wings' current five-season championship drought. He's been stellar since becoming the starting goalie during the 2009-10 season, boasting a 130-62-26 record, a 2.35 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in that span. In the past two seasons Howard's GAA dipped to 2.13, while in 2012-13 no goalie in the League bested his five regular-season shutouts.

In the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, Howard backstopped Detroit to a seven-game first-round upset of the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks, with three of the Wings' four wins coming in overtime. Against Chicago, Howard held the second-highest scoring team in the regular season to 16 goals in seven games, including a bravura performance in Games 2, 3 and 4, when he allowed just two goals on 88 shots. Even in Detroit's Game 7 loss, Howard might have been the best player on the ice, making 33 saves on 35 shots.

That kind of performance out of a goaltender, particularly a 29-year-old in his prime, was not lost on the front office in Detroit, a franchise that has won four Stanley Cups since 1997 with three different goalies without signing any to long-term contracts. That won't be the case with Howard, whom the Red Wings signed to a six-year, $31.8 million contract extension this offseason.

"It gives me a lot of confidence that (Wings coach Mike Babcock) and (general manager Ken Holland) and all of management have a lot of confidence in me to get the job done," Howard said. "By them offering me that contract, it was a no-brainer to sign it and to be able to stay in Detroit where it's such a great organization. From top to bottom it's run first-class."

Barring the unexpected, Howard will have been Detroit's starting goalie for a decade by the time his contract ends, providing the Red Wings with the kind of stability in net they haven't had since Terry Sawchuk wore the Winged Wheel. That should be a tremendous boon for the Wings as they balance an influx of young defensemen with Detroit's year-in, year-out Stanley Cup expectations.

Howard, for one, expects some of the team's younger players to have different mindsets after last-season's unexpected playoff run.

"They got to play in two Game 7 situations in two very hostile arenas," Howard said. "I think everyone was writing us off in both series to lose out, and I think it surprised even ourselves that we got to be up 3-1 [in the series] on Chicago. … I think that's part of the maturation process, becoming a better player and a better athlete. You learn in those situations that failure isn't an option. You just think about winning."

Convinced as he might be that Detroit's defense will be improved in the second season of the post-Niklas Lidstrom era, Howard's new contract makes it clear management expects him to be the team's rock. His continued improvement and his play in the 2013 playoffs certainly justifies those expectations, and this season he may find himself under more pressure than normal considering the Red Wings are experiencing transitions on several fronts.

In addition to the relative youth of its defense, Detroit also shook up its forwards, signing big-ticket items Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson off the free-agent market. Also, realignment has moved the team to the Eastern Conference, a change that is welcome but nonetheless will require some adaptation. After years of learning the systems of teams like Chicago or the St. Louis Blues, the Wings will have a whole new slate of foes in the Atlantic Division, something Howard admits will be a challenge in the season's early months. All the changes have given him plenty to think about heading into the start of the regular season, Oct. 2 against the Buffalo Sabres.

But one thing Howard won't be thinking about is the Game 7 goal against the Blackhawks.

"After that, I just flushed it out," Howard said. "This is a new season. This is a new start. We're moving to the Eastern Conference now so it's going to be a bit of a transition for us here at first. What's done is done and you've just got to move on."

Howard's focus on the season should be just what the Red Wings' front office wants to hear after committing to him through the 2018-19 season. After all, Wings fans don't want another banner to go up -- they expect it.

Those are the demands any goalie has to be ready for when he signs up to play in Detroit. But having spent 10 years in the Red Wings organization (he was a 2003 second-round pick), not only is that nothing new for Howard, it's just how he wants it.

"Every year it's the Stanley Cup or bust," he said. "That's the expectation of playing in Hockeytown.

"And that's the way it should be."

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