Wings goalie Jimmy Howard celebrates after the shootout victory over the Kings Saturday. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — Normally when a goalie gets into confrontations as Jimmy Howard did during Saturday’s game, he’ll seemingly lose his cool and concentration for the task at hand.
But with Howard, it’s different.
The more he’s involved, especially physically, it seems to get Howard more zoned into the action.
Those skirmishes with Los Angeles forward Mike Richards and Kyle Clifford (who bowled into Howard, igniting the hard feelings), and goalie Jonathan Quick (as the two teams were headed to their benches for a television break), all seemed to motivate Howard further.
“It probably was not the smartest time to do that in a 1-1 game (at the time), but it actually helped me focus in even more,” Howard said.
The Red Wings have been waiting for him to play like the Jimmy Howard of the past for most of this season.
Now, with injuries mounting and offense almost nonexistent, and with the Red Wings needing Howard to be at his best — he has been.
Saturday’s 30-save, 3-2 shootout-winning effort was the latest in a string of outstanding Howard performances.
Since Howard returned from a left knee sprain Dec. 30 to play in Nashville, he’s gone 3-3-1. But he easily could have won five of the seven decisions, and three times has made over 40 saves (he won two of those decisions).
“He’s been playing real strong for us each and every night,” coach Mike Babcock said. “He knows with our lineup right now he has to be a star and he was (Saturday).”
The lack of Red Wings scoring lately makes every goal-against that much more difficult to overcome. But Howard has allowed only four goals in his last three starts (a 2-1 record).
“Howie has been outstanding,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “Just unbelievable. He’s been giving us a chance every game.”
The key from early this season to now, said Howard, has been his health.
The knee injury which kept him out most of December and limited him physically has nearly completely healed.
“My body is getting healthier,” Howard said. “As the days pass, I’m not really feeling anything out there with the knee or anything else. It’s comforting to be out there and be playing pain-free.”
And that’s vital for the Red Wings, who badly need Howard to stay at his elite level while they stay afloat in the playoff race — and hope some of their injured players return.
Until that occurs, Babcock said the Red Wings need good structured play, have to out-work their opponent, and get quality goaltending They’ve gotten all three the past few games, but especially the goaltending part.
And for a while now.
Even with a few shoves thrown in for good measure.
“I was actually exhausted,” Howard said of Saturday’s antics. “I was happy there was a television timeout that I could get a chance to breathe.”
You’ll rarely see a more bizarre play than Saturday’s tying goal.
Niklas Kronwall’s shot from the point caromed off the top of the protective mesh, then off the back of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick into the goal with 27 seconds left in the game.
The play, likely, should have been blown dead. But referees lost sight of the puck, never whistled the play stopped, and the goal was allowed to stand.
Needless to say, Kings coach Darryl Sutter was not amused.
“That’s embarrassing for the league,” Sutter said. “It doesn’t matter if we would’ve scored or they scored it, that’s embarrassing.
“They could see the puck when (Kings forward) Dwight King covered it with his hand (the penalty which led to Kronwall’s power-play goal), but they couldn’t see it when it went over the barn and came back?”
The Red Wings had the day off Sunday but it’s doubtful whether the day away from the rink will get any of the injured back for Monday’s game against St. Louis.
Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (ribs), forwards Darren Helm (groin) and Joakim Andersson (lower body) and goalie Jonas Gustavsson (groin) remain the closest to returning to the lineup.
The returns of forwards Pavel Datsyuk (lower body), Johan Franzen (concussion) and Daniel Alfredsson (back) are unclear.
Blues at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7:30 Monday, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
Outlook: The former Central Division rivals face each other for the first time this season. ... St. Louis is coming off a rare loss Saturday at home to Anaheim. ... The Blues are ranked second in goals (3.45 per game) and third in goals-against (2.23).