May 4, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Jimmy Howard must be better if Red Wings want to win series

Goalie Jimmy Howard makes a save in the second period of Game 2 of the Red Wings' first-round series with the Ducks Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Kids unravel at times, which isn't an excuse, just a biological truism. So if the Red Wings truly plan to morph from understated upstart into big-game Duck-hunter, they need direction from the guys that know the way.

That means Johan Franzen, who's invigorated again, and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. It means Justin Abdelkader and Valtteri Filppula, who made the play of the night in the Red Wings' frantic 5-4 overtime victory over the Ducks in Game 2 Thursday.

And it especially means Jimmy Howard, who has to be better, preferably a lot better. With the Red Wings home for Game 3 tonight, it's back where it usually ends up, on Howard. He was half-stellar and half-poor Thursday night, when the Red Wings blew a 4-1 third-period lead before pulling it out on Gustav Nyquist's overtime winner off a great pass by Filppula.

The Red Wings have no choice but to grow up quickly, even more quickly with their best young defenseman, Danny DeKeyser, out for the playoffs with a broken thumb. Detroit fell apart in the final 12 minutes before recovering, but when the defense melted in front of him, Howard struggled to settle things down.

Howard must rebound because the Red Wings don't have the depth to wear opponents out, or to stymie Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry for long. It's not always the goaltender's fault, and when the Red Wings used to be loaded, the goaltender could weather a rough patch. Not in this series, not with this team in transition.

At least two of Anaheim's goals were shots Howard should have stopped. If the Red Wings periodically get confused and rattled, Howard is the one who must stand firm, and it's vitally important he steadies himself at home, with the series 1-1.

"Howie's our guy, it's unbelievable how he's carried us all year," coach Mike Babcock said. "And he had a couple go through him that normally don't go through him, and then it's like a feeding frenzy. … I thought we were at times as frazzled as we've been in a long time. We've got lots of kids on our team, and they're not like veterans. It just takes time for them to figure it all out. They'll figure it all out. This will be a good thing."

Counting on Howard

It's an inevitable thing. The Red Wings gained confidence late in the season, but now everything accelerates. Rookie defenseman Brendan Smith talked before the playoffs about nerves and not knowing exactly what he'll face. He'll face even more — along with young Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff — with DeKeyser out for the rest of the postseason.

That's a huge blow for the Red Wings because DeKeyser had been ridiculously solid since he was signed out of Western Michigan. But if the Red Wings' chances are completely derailed by the loss of a rookie who wasn't on the team until a month ago, their chances weren't very good.

When they churned in as a seventh seed, it was fashionable to say the Red Wings were a prime upset pick over the No. 2 Ducks, despite having six players making their playoff debuts. Heck, it made sense to me, partly because of Howard's rise. This is the postseason Howard, 29, was asked to make a significant difference. It's what he signed up for with his six-year, $31.8 million contract last month, and more than ever, it's what we need to see.

Let's not overlook that Howard was excellent for much of Game 2, while Franzen was scoring twice to build a 4-1 lead. Hockey is goofy sometimes. With all their experienced teams, the Red Wings had lost five straight overtime playoff games to the Ducks. With their least experienced team in years, they calmed down and pulled it out in overtime.

During stretches of the third period, Howard was absolutely under siege, and he buckled a bit. Babcock said he didn't want to call a timeout for fear the crowd noise would unnerve the Wings even more.

"They just kept coming at us, coming at us, and in the playoffs, you can't really take the foot off the gas," Howard said. "It seemed like the puck never left our zone. We just have to remain positive, continue to play, and that's all of us. The playoffs, I've learned, are an emotional roller-coaster, with swings of momentum constantly."

Wings have skill to win

Swings for the Red Wings are understandable these days, but there's no free pass because they rallied to make the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive time. Just happy to be in? Please, even with their youthful roster, they have the skill to win this series.

Howard has the ability to steal a game or two, and I still think he will. But in two games in Anaheim, his save percentage was .897. His playoff record is 15-17. He needs to be better than that, a guy who remains calm while others are wobbling.

With their inexperience and injuries, the Red Wings have to win by unconventional means, at least by their standards. Their goaltender has to outplay the other guy, Jonas Hiller. It's not an easy task but there's no avoiding it, and Howard accepts it. After all, he signed up for it.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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