May 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is up for the challenge against Blackhawks

Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard has a 2.74 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in seven playoff games this season. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Normally, one playoff series doesn't define a team or validate a plan. But this isn't a normal season, and the Red Wings just won their most important series in years.

Now comes the chance to accelerate the process even more, with a second-round collision against the Blackhawks. And while numerous Wings punched important stamps in ousting the Ducks, one guy is eager to do more.

Jimmy Howard was perfectly solid as Detroit captured four one-goal victories, three in overtime. In the 3-2 clincher in Game 7, he outplayed his opponent, and will have to do the same against Chicago's hot Corey Crawford. Howard didn't steal the Anaheim series but was very good, and at times great. He isn't satisfied, not even close, reflecting the rising Red Wings hunger for more.

"I still think I can be better for the guys," Howard said. "It seems like whenever we get our backs against the ropes, that's when we play our best. We had to fight and claw the last week of the season just to get into the playoffs. It says a lot about our team. It's gonna be a lot of fun in the next series."

Howard's eyes glinted as he spoke, and he knows what it means to face the deep and talented Blackhawks. They swarm, essentially daring a goalie to beat them, which presents a huge challenge and huge possible reward.

"Being around when I was a black ace (a Red Wings reserve), I've been sort of waiting for this opportunity to play a playoff series in the United Center," Howard said of the Chicago arena. "It was so much fun watching the guys play in that building. I'm finally thankful I get a chance to be part of this rivalry."

This is a shot at a signature moment against a signature opponent before the Wings head to the Eastern Conference next season. Since losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to Pittsburgh in 2009, Detroit has won three playoff series and lost three. Nothing has stood out, until now.

Points proven

By beating the Ducks as a No. 7 seed, the Red Wings affirmed a few points. In his first season as captain, Henrik Zetterberg was the best player and unquestioned leader. Pavel Datsyuk restated his status as the most overlooked superstar in the league. Others left marks, from young forwards Justin Abdelkader, Damien Brunner and Gustav Nyquist, to the young defensemen, all the way to the top.

Mike Babcock has done a masterful job with a jumbled roster, patiently learning when to lean on his veterans and when to push the rookies. GM Ken Holland also calmly weathered concerns and pieced together an untested group that keeps getting better.

After missing out on free agents and watching Nicklas Lidstrom retire, the Wings may be rebuilding, but they showed they're not retreating. When you have stars like Zetterberg and Datsyuk, you have a chance to rebuild quickly, and by beating the Ducks, the Red Wings moved ahead of schedule.

The series against the Blackhawks could say much more. Chicago had the best record in the league and won all four regular-season meetings. But one ended in overtime and two in a shootout, and when pressed on what he learned, Howard shook his head.

"I don't really care about the shootouts — there are no shoot-outs now," he said, pausing and smiling for emphasis. "We expect it to be tight. They're very good at the transition game, and their (defensemen) like to join the rush and throw pucks from everywhere."

High-end forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa earn most of the acclaim, but Chicago's swift, skilled defense is equally adept, led by Duncan Keith. The Red Wings can't match the Blackhawks depth, but they supposedly couldn't match the Ducks depth either.

The Blackhawks aren't a punishing physical team, but I doubt they'll let Datsyuk and Zetterberg dominate with the last line change on home ice. Babcock smartly split the duo up in Game 7, forcing the Ducks to spread their attention and allowing Zetterberg to get Valtteri Filppula going. If that continues, watch out.

More to grow on

To have a shot now, the Red Wings need even more growth, including from their goalie. Howard had a modest goals-against average of 2.74 and save percentage of .911 against the Ducks, although he deserves ample credit for staying composed amid defensive breakdowns.

"I thought Howie was really good for us; just solid and competitive," Babcock said. "To me, if you're a competitor, you're having so much fun at playoff time, you just get better. We got a whole bunch of kids on our team, and any time you get to play a seven-game series, and you play a lot of overtimes, that's just being mentally tough, flat out."

No one can question the Red Wings' mental toughness after squeezing into the playoffs and surviving an exhausting battle with the Ducks. Howard was the team's steadiest player during the regular season, arguably their MVP, and that earned him a six-year, $31 million contract.

Debate it if you wish, but if he steals games against the Blackhawks, the deal will look like a steal for the Red Wings. That's not necessarily the point Howard is eager to prove, but when you make saves for a living, you always want to make the biggest ones.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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