May 11, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Wings' Jimmy Howard stands tall to earn another winner-take-all match

Detroit — They got the lawnmower started on the first pull for a change.

But then when it started sputtering, none of the Red Wings seemed to know how to fix it.

Certainly not Jimmy Howard, who stood there in his crease and just shook his head, wondering how a simple game of 5-on-5 could've become so lopsided Friday night at Joe Louis Arena.

At times, it seemed as if he was the only one playing defense. At times, he probably wished he was. Because his teammates were doing more harm than good as they tried to hold on to a third-period lead and stave off playoff elimination in Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

The two-goal lead Detroit built midway through the third period disappeared in a flash in the final four minutes of regulation. And there was little, if anything, the Wings' goalie could do about it on a night he'd done all he could to give his team a chance.

A brutal mistake behind the net by Valtteri Filppula set up Anaheim's second goal, then a defensive lapse — and a blatant missed call — set up the next. Two goals in 51 seconds, and just like that the Wings were staggering off the ice, tied 3-3 and headed to a franchise-record fourth overtime in six games.

"You know, I guess we can never do anything the easy way around here," Howard said, sighing and laughing all at once, relieved beyond words after Henrik Zetterberg won it 64 seconds into extra time. "We like to keep everyone on their toes."

He'd prefer if it his teammates stayed off their heels the way they were at the end of the third period, suddenly growing tentative as they protected a lead.

But, as Howard noted, "A win's a win. We're still alive. It's Game 7 on Sunday night."

And for Howard, it'll be the third winner-take-all playoff game of his career. He won a Game 7 in Phoenix in 2010 — his first year as a full-time NHL starter — then lost one to San Jose in 2011 after he'd helped the Wings rally from an 0-3 series deficit.

A smooth run

Considering the circumstances, with the Wings fending off one match point Friday night on home ice to force a cross-country flight today, Howard's definitely looking forward to another.

"It's just a blast," he said. "They're fun to be a part of."

This was fun, too, up to a point, just as it had been Wednesday night in Anaheim before the Wings wasted another strong effort by Howard. He made 31 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 5 and was stellar early as his teammates inexplicably came out flat. That effort is what prompted Mike Babcock's lawnmower analogy prior to Game 6.

"You choke it, you start it, rev it, it takes a few minutes to get going," he explained. "We don't need to be a lawnmower, we need to get that done in warm-up. We need to be idling just perfect.''

They weren't perfect in the first period Friday night, but Babcock's team was pretty good. The Wings came out firing, putting 11 shots on Jonas Hiller in the first 20 minutes, with another 16 that missed the net or were blocked.

And finally they broke through, as Henrik Zetterberg set up Pavel Datsyuk for a wicked backhander at 18:48 of the period to make it 1-0.

Then came the first intermission, though. And there went whatever momentum the Wings had going for them, because the second period was all Anaheim. The Wings didn't record a shot on goal in the first eight minutes, leaving Howard largely under siege.

He made a handful of terrific stops to keep it 1-0, none better than the sprawling save to rob Teemu Selanne on a point-blank attempt about 3 minutes into the period. He later denied Selanne — still one of the game's elite snipers — on a one-timer.

Sudden crisis

But Howard couldn't stop his own teammates. After a Kyle Quincey giveaway, Kyle Palmieri, the Ducks' fourth-line menace, rang a shot off the goalpost that caromed directly into Brendan Smith's chest as he came charging back to help. From there, the puck went fluttering into the net as Smith tried in vain to swat it out of harm's way.

That tied the score at 11:31 of the second, and for Howard, it was an ominous sign of things to come, though he'd later shrug it all off.

"It's the playoffs," said Howard, who finished with 34 saves. "You can't let anything bother you. One thing I learned when I was a Black Ace here watching Dom (Dominik Hasek) and Ozzie (Chris Osgood) is you let everything roll off your back. That's no different here tonight. You just get ready to stop the next one."

But the next goal was gift-wrapped, too, thanks to a turnover behind his own net. Howard had no chance as Emerson Etem happily accepted Filppula's accidental assist and stuffed it inside the far post.

The next one came with Smith again running interference inadvertently, getting beat to a loose puck and then getting in the way after the refs missed a tripping call behind the net, setting up Bobby Ryan's tying goal with 3:37 left.

After that, Babcock called a timeout to try to settle things down.

"It was one of those things — it just happened really fast," Howard said. "And you had to forget about it really fast as well."

Zetterberg made sure they did, finding a way to beat Hiller — on the second shift of overtime — before one of his teammates could find a way to beat Howard.

Friendly fire, indeed.

Anaheim's Andrew Cogliano (Michigan) can't get the puck past Detroit's Jakub Kindl and goalie Jimmy Howard in the second period. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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