Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has been on the receiving end of some defensive breakdowns. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Detroit -- Jimmy Howard undoubtedly was talking to himself during the third period of Monday night's Game 6 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
And the Red Wings goaltender might as well have been talking to himself afterward, too, as he addressed the media and snapped off a succession of short answers to questions about just how the Wings had let this game — and possibly their season — slip away.
"Just relax, breathe," Howard said, in between swigs of a sports drink as he sat in front of his locker. "Everyone take a deep breath."
He was talking about how to forget the 4-3 loss that forced tonight's Game 7 at the United Center. He was saying much the same thing Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was saying in the middle of a media scrum across the room. But Howard was saying it through pursed lips, still seething over another third-period letdown by his team, and you could hardly have blamed him if he'd decided to go off script.
He didn't, though.
"Take a step back and just flush it and get ready," said Howard, beaten for eight goals the last two games but still carrying a 2.18 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in the series. "The season's down to one game. And we've got to go out there and execute."
They've got to win, or they'll join just two other teams in franchise history (the 1942 and '91 Wings) in blowing a 3-1 playoff series lead. And as it has been painfully obvious for much of this season, if the Wings are going to win — if they're going to do as their coach suggests and "push" the Blackhawks out of the playoffs — Howard has got to go out there and play like a politician caught in a very big lie: Deny, deny, deny.
There's no denying the team in front of him is playing short-handed, as it were, trying to do more with less. Not when you see Detroit's top two lines getting outplayed in back-to-back losses, and five of the six other forwards playing fewer than 12 minutes each in Game 6. Not with $7 million-plus in cap space burning a hole in GM Ken Holland's pocket and the bulk of his free-agent work the past couple years dressed in workout gear as healthy scratches in the playoffs. And certainly not with that corps of defensemen driving Howard batty with mental and physical lapses on an almost-nightly basis.
Prior to Monday night, the Wings hadn't lost all season (26-0-2) when scoring three or more goals in a game. That they did in Game 6, with a chance to eliminate the Presidents' Trophy winners on home ice, simply wasn't the fault of their goaltender, though he was the one left to fish the puck out of his net once, twice and three times in the third period.
Howard, even before that borderline penalty-shot call Monday, got hung out to dry twice by his teammates as the Blackhawks turned a 2-1 deficit into a crowd-silencing 3-2 lead. More specifically, he was let down by rookie defenseman Brendan Smith, who has now been on the ice for 16 goals-against in the playoffs — tied for most in the NHL — and seven of the 12 in this series, not including an empty-netter and the Game 6 penalty shot.
The fact that Smith is only a minus-3 in the postseason probably says something about his Jekyll-and-Hyde talent. (See Game 2 in Chicago, for example.) But Howard tossing aside Smith's stick after he'd pried it loose from his pads following Bryan Bickell's go-ahead goal Monday night probably says something about his frustration level with all the "young mistakes," as Babcock sugar-coated them after the game.
Tuesday at the team hotel in Chicago, Howard insisted all that was yesterday's news, which it was. And he reminded everyone again to "get their facts straight" about this Blackhawks team.
"We knew it was going to be tough — they're a really good team and they showed it in the last two games," Howard said. "We just made a couple of mistakes that wound up in the back of our net. Some days they go in and some days they don't. … It's just one game."
And this is another, albeit a special one.
"Game sevens, you dream about winning these when you're growing up as a kid," Howard said. "We've already played one this year.'"
This will be the fourth Game 7 of Howard's four-year NHL career — all of them on the road — and he has won two of his first three (at Phoenix in 2010 and at Anaheim earlier this month) with a 2.02 GAA and .938 save percentage. But after watching his team play the last two games in this series, he knows he needs to be even better than that tonight.