April 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Jimmy Howard's goaltending, Wings' grit show postseason begins now

Detroit -- It matters, and yes, it matters a lot. In case anyone wondered, that was the Red Wings' point — two points, actually — as the last desperate push began.

This wasn't quite single-elimination hockey, but it was close. And with their 21-year postseason streak teetering, the Wings went ahead and started their playoffs a tad early. That meant great goaltending by Jimmy Howard, scoring by Johan Franzen and heavy doses of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

It's nearly May and the Wings want to keep playing, and if Howard shines as he did in a 4-0 blanking of the Coyotes on Monday night, they'll keep the streak alive. With three games left, they're a point behind Columbus and Minnesota for the final spot, and the only way to guarantee it is to win out.

"You don't want to be part of it when the streak is over," Zetterberg said. "It's nice to play games that are playoff-like. It'll be that way for the rest of the year, and it's good for guys that haven't been in it."

The formula has changed, the margins are extra thin and the odds are longer than they've been in two decades, but of course the Wings want their shot. It was evident in bursts, as Datsyuk knocked into Phoenix players, as Detroit's power play started humming. It was evident when Howard finished off the shutout and the Joe Louis Arena crowd stood and roared.

Have fans and players been spoiled by the Wings' postseason birthright? Sure. But the best time to stop taking something for granted is when it's in danger. Howard has played well, but two huge mistakes in a loss at Calgary hurt. Not shaken up, he stirred it up and kept his team in this one. The Coyotes carried the action for stretches and outshot the Wings, 34-22, but Howard sprawled to make terrific saves.

"You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself in this situation because you tend to tense up," Howard said. "But we all know what's at stake. There's no panic, but there's urgency and that's what we showed from the drop of the puck."

Mike Babcock saw it even earlier, during a quick, crisp practice Monday morning. The Wings then came out and scored three times on the power play, with Franzen starting it barely three minutes in, redirecting a shot by Damien Brunner, who was excellent.

Fighting for playoffs

These Wings aren't nearly good enough to revisit the glory years of 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, but there's no sense going all the way back to 1990, the last time they failed to make the playoffs. It's the longest streak in professional sports and it's worth fighting for, even literally. In the third period, Justin Abdelkader tangled with big Shane Doan, and while the scuffle was brief, it hit the mark.

Detroit practically eliminated Phoenix from playoff contention, and with two more home games against Los Angeles and Nashville, the Wings control their fate. Who cares if they'd probably face the bullish Blackhawks in the first round. What are the chances they could stun Chicago? Not very good, but I know they're better than 0.5 percent. That's approximately their odds of winning the NHL draft lottery, which includes all 14 non-playoff teams for the first time this year.

Besides, draft-order jockeying is a bit beneath the Wings, who have been humbled plenty. For all the big games here, this was an odd one, but it also should be invigorating for a team in transition. The Wings aren't the elite skilled group of their recent past, and you can see it in their shootout woes and inability to score. They began the week needing a four-game winning streak to ensure a playoff berth, but haven't won more than three in a row all year.

As the old saying goes, what doesn't kill your playoff chances only makes you stronger, right? Uh, yeah. Especially if Howard does what opposing goalies have done to the Wings and steal a few games. Zetterberg called Howard the team MVP, and the Wings backed it up with the recent six-year contract.

Asked if Howard can carry this team, Babcock's answer was short.

"He has to," Babcock said. "It's not about 'can.' He has to."

Fiery speeches aren't necessary as the Wings stare at a fate completely foreign to them. Everyone knows the ballad of the Los Angeles Kings, who were the No. 8 seed last season and rolled all the way to the Stanley Cup championship.

The Wings are a long, long way from that, just trying to get into position to have a shot. In the absence of goal explosions — they'd scored 19 in their previous 11 games — it will require more defense and more goaltending. And it will require contributions from young players making their first foray into playoff-like hockey.

The older Wings figure that by now, the kids know what's up.

"I don't have to say that much," Zetterberg said. "They're playing in playoff games right now."

Looks that way. The playoffs essentially arrived early at Joe Louis Arena — just in time before it got too late.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard stopped 34 shots, including this one off Coyotes center Antoine Vermette in the second period, to earn a shutout in a playoff-like performance Monday. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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