April 20, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Bob Wojnowski

In the face of pressure: Wings' Jimmy Howard ready to rebound

Jimmy Howard talks about his adjustment to the NHL
Jimmy Howard talks about his adjustment to the NHL: The Red Wings' rookie goaltender takes a page out of Chris Osgood's book.

Detroit

Jimmy Howard always knew this was coming. The truth is, he has been waiting for it a long time, waiting for his chance, even waiting for the tough moments.

He was prepared for it, and that's one important step in preparing for what's next -- the biggest, ultra-tense test of his young career.

The Wings are in a tussle with the Coyotes, down 2-1 with a must-must-must-win Game 4 tonight. It'd be ridiculous to pin the bulk of their struggles on the goalie. Howard has allowed some soft, untimely goals, no doubt, but the Wings have been outskated and outhustled at times. If you want a concern that absolutely must be fixed, that's it.

But there's an experience gap here and it's up to Howard to show he can close it, to show he can be better when the lights get hotter. The Wings have risen out of danger many times before, and the strong inclination is to say they'll do it again, starting right now.

Howard is a 26-year-old rookie in his first NHL playoff series and he hasn't done it yet, so the inclination is to question whether he can. I think he'll rebound fine, although the Wings' defense needs to do a better job taking the pressure off him.

Wait a minute. Take the focus off the goalie in Detroit? Ha, ha. Good one. Even Howard got a chuckle out of that Monday.

"Well, it's the old love-hate relationship with goalies here, right?" he said, then laughed, and I think that's a good sign. "Whatever. It's a lot of fun out there. I just need to get refocused and go out and battle."

Calming influence

I wouldn't say Howard offered a no-worries shrug after his shaky outing in a 4-2 loss Sunday. But he has a calm, soft-spoken demeanor that doesn't change, a function of playing on such a veteran team, with such an experienced goalie at his side in Chris Osgood.

Howard is sitting exactly where Osgood sat 16 years ago, when he started his first playoffs against upstart San Jose. The message from Osgood, 37, and other teammates is simple: Let it go.

Howard swore he did just that, forgetting about Phoenix's final goal in Game 3, a quick shot by Radim Vrbata that beat him on the short side. It came less than two minutes after the Wings had climbed back to 3-2, and there's no getting around how deflating it was.

"You can't dwell on the negatives, because if you do, that's when thoughts start to creep into your mind and the floor comes out from underneath you," Howard said. "The next thing you know, you're in shambles. So you gotta remain positive. Ozzie keeps telling me just to move on, things will be fine."

Osgood would know. It is kind of weird he's the savvy, older buddy now, after playing in the last two Stanley Cup Finals. But Howard was so good this season, and the Wings were in such a scrap to make the playoffs, Osgood never got a shot. He played only twice in the final 29 games, and although he says he's ready if called upon, it's not even an issue right now.

It's not an issue for anyone in the Wings dressing room, although no one denies Howard's immediate response is huge.

"With goalies, it's not about the pucks that went in, it's about the next one," Mike Babcock said. "Howie's been great at that, and now you gotta respond. We're real comfortable that he's going to."

Clear out the head

Howard has allowed 11 goals in three games, and while they weren't all his fault, that's too many. Shortly after Sunday's game was over, Osgood was telling Howard to get his gear off, clear his head and don't obsess about it.

"I didn't say much to him, I just kind of moved the focus somewhere else," Osgood said. "That's the biggest thing I learned from Dominik Hasek -- he didn't barely think about hockey when he wasn't in net. I'm trying to teach Howie that. I really don't think he was that bad (Sunday), but it's hard to let things go. He's already got the mental makeup, now he's got to use those tools to shut it out of his mind."

Really, if anyone's looking for Howard to swipe this series from the hard-skating Coyotes, that's unfair. The Wings' top two lines, led by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, need to be as good as they were in the 7-4 victory in Game 2. The Wings need to be less sloppy and battle much harder.

Howard is a big chunk of the focus because, well, he's the goalie in Detroit, and he has never gone through it. It's no time to get nervous, not that he often does.

"Nah, it was quite the opposite," Howard said. "Down in Phoenix, I felt really at ease, and I felt pretty good (Sunday). We're gonna have to answer the call now. There's no reason I can't do it."

No reason at all. He's been waiting for this since the Wings drafted him in the second round in 2003, and his readiness is about to be tested like never before. As any good goalie knows, it's all about handling the rebound.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Goalie Jimmy Howard expects to bounce back in Game 4 tonight. "There's no reason I can't do it," he said. / Daniel Mears/The Detroit News