April 21, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Wings' Jimmy Howard aces this test, but has more coming

Wings' coach Mike Babcock discusses Jimmy Howard a...
Wings' coach Mike Babcock discusses Jimmy Howard a...: Babcock talks about his rookie goaltender's resilience, and about his team's physical play.

Detroit

The goalie was unmasked, and in the ensuing scramble, in several wild scrambles, the playoff competitor was unveiled. Jimmy Howard wanted this badly, and it was reflected vividly on one memorable shot, when his face mask went flying and he sprawled to make a bare-faced save.

Howard made timely saves and great saves, all of them, and can you even imagine the wall of pressure he ran smack into and brushed aside? This was the season, more or less, a referendum on the Wings' worthiness, a supreme test of the rookie goalie's sturdiness.

And by the end, the fans were chanting "Jim-my!" mostly in admiration, also in relief, after a tough, grinding game. This was the determined effort the Wings had to have, and it was the gutsy performance Howard needed to deliver, making 29 saves in a 3-0 victory over the Coyotes, knotting the series 2-2.

Give the kid loads of credit, not for taking control of the series (the Coyotes still are making this tight), and not for making otherworldly saves (Detroit's defense was better and prime chances were scarce.) This was about staring down that moment -- uh, you know the moment -- and not buckling.

Adversity motivates

Howard had struggled in the Game 3 loss, and admitted he had a difficult time letting it go. He knew all the stories about Wings goalies, how demanding the fans could be, how tense it was. He couldn't stop thinking about it, until, well, he had no choice.

"When I woke up (Tuesday) morning, for some reason, I knew it was gonna be a great day," Howard said. "You know, a little adversity's never hurt anybody. That's what I told myself, this is only going to make me better, if I can look it down and attack it and not let it affect me."

He took it straight on, and now here's the reality: As good as he was, all he earned was a chance to stare it down again, with a crucial Game 5 Friday night in Phoenix.

But this was a key juncture. Howard backed up his teammates with the stellar goaltending any team eventually has to have in the playoffs. And they backed him up with more inspired play, although this was tense for a long, long time. Henrik Zetterberg's tipped goal on the power play late in the second period finally broke the ice, so to speak.

Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were excellent, as Mike Babcock juggled his top line to push his best players. But it took a while for the Wings to bust through, as the Coyotes clamped down without its injured captain, Shane Doan, and hung in.

Howard kept the Wings in it, quickly looking comfortable.

"Everyone in here believes in him," Zetterberg said. "It was easy for people to blame him instead of looking at why those goals were scored (Sunday). We hadn't done a good job in front of him. Everyone knew he was a good goalie. He showed up. No surprise for us."

No, the only truly startling moment came late in the second period, less than two minutes after the Wings had taken a 1-0 lead. You want to talk about timeliness? Here were the Coyotes on the power play, and there was Keith Yandle, firing a shot that struck Howard flush in the face. The puck ripped off his mask but the play was still alive, and Howard stuffed the rebound off Lee Stempniak's stick.

That's when the first "Jim-my!" chant started, and there were a few more when the Wings killed two more power plays in the third period.

"I would have taken it off the face if I had to," Howard said, smiling. "Yandle's got a cannon. I got to see it all the way, and the fact it hit me in the head, I was able to see where it went after that. It didn't really faze me at all."

What pressure?

That shot didn't faze him and the pressure didn't faze him, and of the positive signs for the Wings Tuesday night, that's a big one. It certainly quiets some of the noise, at least for now, of course.

In only his fourth playoff game, Howard got his first playoff shutout, and just as he had to shake off the bad loss, he'll have to shake off the huge win. But he deserved a moment to soak this in.

"That was pretty crazy, pretty surreal," he said of the crowd's chants. "I mean, I just felt like I really needed to compete for these guys and put forth a better effort, and our defense played great. It wasn't as easy as I thought to forget about Game 3, because I was very upset at myself. I just told myself to be mentally tough and take it one shot at a time, five minutes at a time."

It will take a lot more because in case you haven't noticed, Phoenix knows how to keep it tight. The Wings answered the Coyotes' physical play, and their stars responded, and their young goalie answered the solid play of his counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov.

When Datsyuk scored late to make it 2-0, the crowd's relief was reflected in the sudden flurry of octopi heaved on the ice. The Wings and Howard had been unmasked and skated past it, and survived to go through it all again.

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

Jimmy Howard made 29 saves in the Red Wings' 3-0 victory. / Daniel Mears / The Detroit News
A shot by Wings center Valtteri Filppula dribbles along the goal line ... (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)
Johan Franzen crashes into Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and defenseman ... (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
See Also
More Bob Wojnowski