May 23, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Bob Wojnowski

The time is now for Red Wings; goalie Jimmy Howard could hold key

Detroit -- Now we find out for sure. Now we learn if the Red Wings are on more than just an unexpected wild ride. They've been to many places over the years but never to this place, as the persistent agitator on the scent of a stunner.

No, upsets don't qualify as monstrous in the Stanley Cup playoffs anymore. The Kings ruined that for everyone by winning it as a No. 8 seed. And as the young Red Wings players gain experience, the gap between the Blackhawks naturally narrows.

Now we find out how tight and real it is, how frustrated the Blackhawks truly are, how much higher Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard can raise their games. The Red Wings are gathering confidence and the Blackhawks are gathering themselves, and tonight at Joe Louis Arena will provide a clash of demeanors with Detroit clutching a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.

Can the Red Wings stay composed and keep the Blackhawks stars frustrated? Zetterberg, Datsyuk and others have made their impact, helping rattle Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and others. More quietly — which is how he prefers it — Howard is the one who can control the series now.

He's playing the best playoff hockey of his career, playing with steely purpose (and stealing intentions), as if he knows he's needed more than ever. He has been fabulous at times, considerably better than Chicago's Corey Crawford, measured not just in save percentage (.950-.901), but in clutch perception.

Howard holds key

The seventh-seeded Red Wings have played with decidedly less pressure against the top seed, but that changes now, with possibilities growing. I expect the Blackhawks to skate furiously tonight, and if they win, they regain control. If the Red Wings win, they'll probably win the series.

The way the Blackhawks are capable of attacking, I believe if the Red Wings prevail it's because of Howard. It's not necessarily about stealing a game, it's about further sealing the scoring frustrations of the Blackhawks.

"I don't hear much but I hear some things, and most of the time it's about our goalie in this city," Zetterberg said Wednesday. "I don't know if it's a tradition here of not really believing in goaltending, but I don't know what he needs to do to get people believing. He's a really good goalie, he's been showing it all year and he's taking another step every game."

Mike Babcock has done a terrific job rallying this team, and Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Daniel Cleary are excellent leaders. But the guy who stands to gain the most is the 29-year-old goaltender who just signed a big contract and vowed to earn it.

Howard and the Red Wings repeatedly have said they weren't content sneaking into the playoffs, weren't happy to win one round and aren't satisfied just giving the Blackhawks a tussle. If it's extra motivation to finally be the overlooked upstart, the Red Wings are in no mood to admit it.

"Whatever," Howard said with a shrug. "I don't think it really bothers us all that much. A lot of people have counted us out for many years, saying our leadership is getting too old. And those guys just go out and prove the naysayers wrong. A lot of people picked the 'Hawks to sweep us, and we're playing great hockey against them now. We just gotta keep it up."

Boisterous 'barn'

As the Red Wings got younger and enthusiasm rose, they noticed the difference in the stands too, where the crowds have created a louder, almost collegiate atmosphere. In some years, Joe Louis Arena could be like a hospital at surgery time, with everyone nervously praying for no mistakes.

It's different now, and it makes sense it might help the goaltender more than anyone. Before this season, Howard had won two of five series and was 13-15 overall in the playoffs. I've always maintained he's better than the numbers, going through the post-Nicklas Lidstrom transition, and he seems unbothered by almost all of it.

"I think it's fun, it's different," Howard said. "Most years, the Red Wings are heavily favored. This year I think the fans are having a lot of fun with it too. You can definitely hear the excitement in the barn. But (no pressure) is not the way we look at it, in any way shape or form. The bar has been set so high from the guys before us, you can always just sense the heart and the passion in the dressing rom."

There's no time to relax, but Howard is learning to find ways. On the off-day, he said he discovered the pure joy of a rare three-hour nap, as he continues to develop a Chris Osgood-like no-worries demeanor. He needs it even more now, as the Blackhawks surely will ratchet the heat. They had 40 shots in Game 3 and tons of scoring chances, which can happen when a highly skilled team presses against an inexperienced defense.

And when the highly skilled team can't score — Toews doesn't have a goal in eight playoff games — it can turn dopey. The Blackhawks exhibited late-game foolishness the other night, with Joel Quenneville sending out Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell in the final minutes, apparently with the bright plan to collect "message-sending" penalties.

Surprises, no more

I'm not sure the Red Wings caught the Blackhawks by surprise — like I said, that's no longer possible after what the Kings did last season. But their feistiness is more agitating than most expected.

"I think the referees are gonna be ready to set the tone right away and not let that extracurricular stuff happen," Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said. "I think emotions will run high, especially at the beginning, but teams will want to stay disciplined and stay out of the box."

If the upset really is going to occur, this is probably when it will happen, and this is probably where it will happen — between the ears and the pipes.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, here stopping Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad in Game 3, will have to match his stellar 39-save performance for Detroit to maintain its series advantage. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News