May 25, 2013 at 11:17 pm

John Niyo

Wings' Jimmy Howard accepts big money for starring role without ego

Jimmy Howard didn’t allow any pucks into the net in Thursday’s victory. He also stopped Jonathan Toews, as the Red Wings took a 3-1 series lead. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Detroit -- He'd faced an opponent's best shots and hadn't flinched once, pitching a playoff shutout Thursday night in front of a sold-out home crowd at Joe Louis Arena.

Afterward, as reporters peppered Jimmy Howard with questions inside the Red Wings' dressing room, the goaltender deflected them all with ease, too. He talked about confidence, but steered clear of cockiness. He talked about making big stops, but saved most of his praise for his teammates. He talked about pushing the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks to the brink of elimination, but pulled back at the slightest hint of presumption.

Finally, someone in the crowd had Howard flustered. In the middle of his lengthy media session, a white-haired gentleman approached with a smile and an outstretched hand.

"Mr. Hockey," Howard said quietly, looking a bit startled as he greeted Hall of Famer Gordie Howe. "How are you? Nice to see you."

A moment later, and a bit sheepishly, Howard returned to answering questions, many of them about growing comfortable amid all the history and tradition — and pressure — that's a fact of life when you're playing hockey for the Red Wings. And particularly when you're the masked man in net.

As his coach, Mike Babcock, had explained earlier in the day, it's not just defending the goal in Detroit. It's about respecting all those who'd established the loftiest goal — Lord Stanley's Cup — as the standard.

Jimmy Howard is not a Hall of Famer.

He is not Terry Sawchuk or Dominik Hasek or even Chris Osgood, though after four full seasons as Detroit's No. 1 goaltender he sure sounds a lot like the latter, doesn't he? Self-assured and self-deprecating, soft-spoken yet defiant, sounding oblivious and completely aware all at once.

Jimmy Howard knows what he is, and what that means. And so do his teammates.

"I don't know if you can ask much more from Howie than what he's done for us since he's got here," veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall said of Howard, who has stopped 86 of 88 shots the last three games. "If you're not appreciating what he's doing right now, I don't know if you're a true fan, to be honest with you. That's how good he's been. He's been the backbone of our team."

The Wings are underdogs in this series against the Blackhawks, and they're enjoying every minute of that. So is Howard, who admits he once wondered, "Do I really belong here?" but now is just fine being perceived as the goalie who can't or won't, even as he shows everyone he can and just might.

"I sort of feel like I've been an underdog all my life," said Howard, who grew up in tiny Ogdensberg, N.Y. and spent three years in college and four in the minors before finally getting his shot in the NHL. "Coming from a small town, people always said, 'You'll never have an opportunity. You'll never have a chance to do this or that.' For me, I sort of just relish it. I kinda like playing that role."

His teammates kinda do, too, though they're all starting to outgrow it. The seventh-seeded Wings are one win from the Western Conference finals — suffocating a Chicago team that hadn't lost three consecutive games all season — while Howard's suddenly a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Proving it

Howard, 29, was one of the few constants for Detroit in a turbulent regular season, ranking fifth among NHL goalies in even-strength save percentage — .937, tied with the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist — and minutes played. (He started 20 of the last 21 games as the Wings scrapped to make the playoffs.)

He was solid, if not spectacular, in the first-round series against Anaheim, evening his career playoff series record at 3-3. And he has been excellent thus far against the Blackhawks, posting a 1.26 goals-against average and .961 save percentage, including Thursday night's 28-save shutout.

"He's been in a groove for a while and we need that to be successful," Babcock said. "We pay him to do that. We expect him to do that."

Those expectations have changed, of course. Or at least that's the perception from the outside, where the shots are easier to take — and defend. Howard began the lockout-shortened regular season as the NHL's 27th-highest-paid goalie. He ended it with the ink still drying on a six-year, $31.8 million deal. And while that salary-cap hit won't even rank in the top 10 next season — it puts him 11th, just ahead of Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, for now — it divided the fan base this spring.

Too much money? Too long a term? My response then, and now, is the same: Too bad. That's the price you pay for stability these days at the one position in the NHL where you absolutely must have it.

But when asked Thursday night if he thought he'd won over some of those critics, Howard just shrugged.

"That's a good question," he said. "You're going to have to ask the fans that. For me, it's about going out and performing, not only for these guys in the dressing room but for the guys like Kenny (Holland) and (goaltending coach) Jim Bedard, who had a lot of faith in me to give me the ball and run with it four years ago, and to stick with me. It's about proving myself to the guys in here in the organization."

He's doing that as he speaks. And while he's not interested in calling his shots — "I don't think I'm like Dom, who could just say I'm gonna get a shutout tonight," he joked Thursday night — he is intent on stopping them.

"I always had faith in myself," Howard said, reiterating a point he has made frequently the past couple years. "I always believed in myself, that I could go out there and play extremely well in the playoffs. So far in these playoffs, I think I've done that. But we still have a long way to go."

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