December 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Wings' Jimmy Howard climbing toward goaltending elite

Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom keeps Montreal's Michael Cammalleri at bay while goalie Jimmy Howard makes a save while rolling around the ice late in the third period. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Credit Jimmy Howard with another win Friday night as Detroit beat its long-lost Original Six rival from Montreal, 4-2, at Joe Louis Arena.

And credit him with a little foreshadowing, too. Lounging by his locker after the morning skate — and Howard isn't one of those superstitious types who refuse to talk to the media on game days — the 26-year-old Red Wings goaltender fielded questions about a much-anticipated matchup with Canadiens counterpart Carey Price, the hottest netminder in the league.

Between them, they've got two of the toughest jobs in the NHL, wearing the bull's-eye in cities where the passion for hockey burns bright, in good times and bad.

"But I think he's got it worse off in Montreal than I've got it here," Howard said with a laugh that suggested something other than envy. "Talk about living in a fishbowl."

He's right, of course. The scrutiny that awaits Price after every loss — in September, he got booed off the ice in an exhibitiongame — is unlike anything Howard faces in Detroit, especially this time of year.

And on nights like this one, when the Wings — the league's best team for much of this season, not to mention the last two decades — play with a sense of urgency from the first puck drop, Howard might as well hang a "Gone fishin'" sign out in front of his crease.

The Wings spent more than a quarter of the first two periods Friday on the power play, and they took advantage, outshooting the Canadiens, 18-7, in the opening 20 minutes. The Wings led 3-1 after two periods.

But make no mistake: This is Howard's fishbowl. And with a lively sellout crowd that included a big contingent cheering for Le Club du Hockey — showing again the folly of Detroit being held hostage in the Western Conference, by the way — Howard clearly was intent on keeping it that way.

"I thought the energy was great in the building," Howard said after he'd stopped 36 of 38 shots to help the Wings snap a three-game skid. "But one thing that really fired me up was when the Habs fans in the crowd were cheering for Carey Price. They were chanting his name in our building. And I thought that was a little much."

So was the "Ole! Ole!" singing in the third period, which the Wings fans eventually drowned out, even as their team was taking on water.

And that's when things really got interesting for Howard, who faced 19 shots in the final period as the Wings threatened to blow that two-goal lead. He was under siege, and to hear him talk afterward, loving every minute of it.

Particularly the part where he made consecutive stops in a flurry that ended with him flat on his back in the crease after gloving a rebound attempt by P.K. Subban with 2:39 left.

"That's fun," Howard said, smiling. "That's a goalie, I guess, scoring a goal, when you're coming up with big saves there for your team. …"I felt like I owed it to the guys. The last couple games have been a disappointment and I felt like they deserved a better effort from me."

That's what a goaltender is supposed to say, of course. But his teammates were appreciative, nonetheless.

"Especially late in the game when they were pressing, he made some huge saves for us," Red Wings captain Nick Lidstrom agreed.

Even the other team grudgingly had to give him credit.

"I thought he played well," Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri said. "They were pretty good at getting in lanes and there seemed to be a lot of 'shoulda-hads' — I know a couple times I lifted my head to take a shot and I had four shin pads in front of me. But he obviously shut the door for them, so hats off to him."

Deserving of chants, too

Howard wasn't the problem for the Red Wings the last few games, and he really hasn't been one in some time.

He's 29-4-4 his last 37 regular-season games, and yet like Price, the one-time phenom who's finally living up to the hype in Montreal this fall, he's not even one of the 100 players on the NHL All-Star ballot.

But unlike Price, there's no massive write-in campaign under way to get Howard into that game in February. And maybe that's why that "Ca-rey! Ca-rey!" chant was ringing in Howard's ears a little louder Friday night.

"He's been awesome this year — he's been one of the best goalies in the league, there's no doubt about it," Howard said, when asked about Price, who's leading the NHL in wins and in the top five in just about every other important category. "Last year, we had a great battle. I thought it was another great battle tonight."

And Howard won both battles, though he'll be the first to let someone else say it.

So, there, I said it.

Howard's no phenom — and quite frankly, he's no Carey Price — but he's playing well enough not to be an afterthought among the league's best goaltenders right now.

Friday night, he was asked if that's something he'd like to hear a little more often.

"Of course I do," he said. "I want to be up there at the top."

If he keeps it up, we won't have a choice but to put him there.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Mathieu Darche tries to get the puck past goaltender Jimmy Howard, who ... (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)