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Wojo: Jimmy Howard remains Wings' go-to goalie

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's tempting. So many young players have energized the Red Wings in so many ways, the temptation is to keep pushing it, give another kid a shot.

Jimmy Howard's task now is to quell the temptation, to reclaim his starting role and reestablish his veteran presence. This isn't a goalie controversy because the job is Howard's unless proven otherwise. It is officially a curious conundrum, one that could shape the Wings' playoff drive.

Petr Mrazek has played well during Howard's month-long absence, and like any shiny new object, has attracted attention. The Wings are 9-1 in his last 10 starts, and the 22-year-old was spectacular in three straight road victories, allowing two goals on 74 shots.

But there also was a stretch in which Mrazek surrendered 16 goals in four games and was pulled twice. And there's the issue some might have misremembered, that Howard, 30, was in the midst of his best season, named an All-Star just hours before injuring his groin Jan. 10.

The Wings have so much fresh depth, everyone is tested. This is a test Howard should pass, and not just because he's confident he will. For the first time in his six seasons, the competition is real, but it's way, way premature to say it will overtake him. Mrazek will start again Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, and then the plan is for Howard to return Saturday night against Winnipeg.

A few more days of rest should complete Howard's healing process — and stoke the competitive process.

"It's still my job," Howard said after practice Tuesday. "I'm not gonna give it up that easily, that's for sure. I got a lot of confidence in myself, otherwise I wouldn't be here. I believe I can do the job, so that's why I don't feel threatened at all."

One too many

He wasn't being brash, and certainly wasn't downplaying Mrazek, who sat one locker away, untying his skates. Pushing hard isn't the same as pushing aside, unless somebody buckles. I don't think Howard will buckle, not after rebounding from last season's struggles, then enduring the cruel buzzkill of getting injured shortly after getting anointed.

Mike Babcock isn't catering to the controversy crowd, but he doesn't shy from what it means. Sometime soon, the Wings will have to send down one of their three goalies. Jonas Gustavsson would be a primary candidate, but he's also returning from injury and would have to clear waivers. Mrazek could go to Grand Rapids without clearing waivers, and needs the playing time, so he appears to be the logical option, if not the best option.

It was a bit of a surprise when Babcock opted to start Mrazek on Wednesday night, with Howard apparently ready, but it's impossible to argue with the reason.

"Howie's been around a long time, and he expects when he's got the hot hand to be in every night," Babcock said. "It's no different for anybody else. Petr's played well and we appreciate what he's done for us. Howie's our No. 1 goaltender, we all know that."

GM Ken Holland doesn't sound overly concerned, but the fact is, the Wings have to see Howard play to know for sure. That's why they're keeping all three goalies for now, without considering a trade yet.

Mrazek provided the luxury of extra healing time for Howard, who appreciated it, at least for a while.

"I want to get back out there and pick up where I left off," Howard said. "Competition is good, it's healthy for the organization. And it goes to show, you can never rest on your laurels — someone is always going to want your job."

Something to prove

Howard knows because he once sat where Mrazek sits, when he replaced Chris Osgood in 2010. Howard probably has accomplished more than people realize in Detroit, but not enough. He was excellent in 2011-12 with a .920 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average. He posted nearly identical numbers the following season, earning a six-year, $31.8-million contract.

He was wildly inconsistent last season, then was back to peak form when he got injured. The problem is, the Wings haven't won in the playoffs under Howard (21-24 record), and even if that's a function of a franchise in transition, it stains a goalie more than any player, fair or not. You can't say the outmanned Wings were eliminated because of goaltending against the Bruins last season. Two years ago, Howard was in net when the Wings lost in overtime of Game 7 to the Blackhawks, and his career postseason save percentage (.919) is respectable.

"Howie might've been one of our most valuable people until he got hurt," Holland said. "We obviously have some tough decisions to make, but I'd rather have tough decisions than decisions being made by themselves because there's not enough competition. To me, there's a body work with Jimmy. There's a real push from the young kids in our organization at every position, but at the end of the day, sometimes you gotta wait your turn."

More and more players are pushing timetables. Tomas Tatar, 24, and Gustav Nyquist, 25, are near the top of the team's scoring chart with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Mrazek hasn't produced for as long, but the fifth-round pick could be another of the Wings' classic unearthed gems.

It might even happen soon, if not as soon as some suggest. Mrazek is a confident, flashy goalie, eager to take chances. Howard is more fundamentally solid and mentally toughened. Take out the new-guy giddiness and the numbers tilt toward the incumbent. Mrazek has a .914 save percentage and a 2.42 GAA; Howard is at .920 and 2.11.

"When you're playing on a team and no one can take your job, it's not quite the same energy level," Babcock said. "But all these guys gotta do here is look around. Every day, someone wants their job, and actually someone thinks they should have their job. We haven't had it in a long time and it's great to have it back."

Do your job to keep your job. It's how good teams are formed, and good goalies are tested.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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