Detroit — It’s like Jimmy Howard was never gone.
Never mind Howard was out for nearly three months with a sprained knee, had a minor setback while rehabilitating in minor league affiliate Grand Rapids, and jumped back into the NHL with everyone speeding into the homestretch of the season.
It just hasn’t mattered.
Howard has played pretty much like he did before he got hurt Dec. 20 — which is, statistically, among the best goaltenders in the league.
“He’s played really good,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s hard to be out that long and it’s hard to predict that a guy is going to come back and play as good as he has. He’s certainly put the work in to be ready.”
Howard played four games with the Griffins but after the second game, had to take a brief time off to strengthen the knee.
Howard has won two of three starts since returning to the Red Wings, including Saturday’s 5-1 victory over Colorado, a game in which he made 23 saves.
Howard was sharp the first two periods with the game in the balance, before the Red Wings exploded for four third-period goals.
“Jimmy has been awesome since he came back,” forward Dylan Larkin said. “He made some big saves for us. He’s been dialed in. We’re happy to see him come back from his injury. He works his butt off every day and you want to play for a guy like that.”
Despite missing so much time, Howard has been as sharp as he looked in the season’s opening months.
“He kind of looks like he did before he left,” Blashill said. “Before he got hurt, the puck was sticking to him. He was real sound from a technical standpoint and he’s not letting any easy ones in.”
Howard is 7-8-1 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, and ranked among the league leaders for most of the first half of the season.
“I’m just trying to be patient, calm, and not try to overdo anything,” Howard said. “Basically just try and play the way I was playing before I got injured.”
If form holds, Blashill will likely go back to Petr Mrazek on Monday against Buffalo, with Howard playing Tuesday in Montreal.
Blashill has thus far alternated between the two goalies, with Mrazek also playing some of his most consistent hockey of the season.
“Between him (Howard) and Petr, both guys are playing real good,” Blashill said.
The Red Wings are awaiting word on the availability of forward Darren Helm, who appeared to injure his left leg in the second period of Saturday’s game.
Helm absorbed a hit by Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, with his leg buckling under the weight of the collision.
Helm came back during a television timeout to test the leg, but was obviously hampered and went straight back into the dressing room.
Blashill said Helm had a “lower-body injury” and was day-to-day.
“I can’t necessarily say whether I expect him on Monday, I just don’t know,” Blashill said.
It would be a disappointing way for Helm to finish the season, as he missed 28 games earlier this season with a dislocated shoulder.
If Helm were to miss any time, the Red Wings could bring back Tomas Nosek from Grand Rapids.
Nosek was recalled Saturday because a couple of players were nursing injuries. But only Mitch Callahan was unable to play — Blashill said Callahan is day-to-day — and Luke Glendening returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch Thursday in Arizona.
Nosek — who was loaned back to Grand Rapids after the game — would conceivably replace Helm, if Callahan is still unable to play.
Sabres at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: FSD, NBC Sports Network/97.1 FM
Outlook: Buffalo (29-31-12, 70 points) is directly ahead of the Red Wings in the Atlantic Division. The Sabres are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. … C Jack Eichel is having a superb sophomore season with 49 points (20 goals) in 51 games.