Wojo: Howard could be unexpected answer for Wings

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jimmy Howard

Detroit — Of all the dips and detours for the Red Wings this season, this could be the strangest yet. They’ve circled and searched, circled and searched, and might end up returning to the beginning.

Jimmy Howard was back in net Monday night, perhaps getting (and giving) a bump in confidence. The opponent wasn’t big but the game certainly was. And with the season teetering and Gordie Howe in the house, the Wings tightened up, got sketchy at the end as they often do, and beat the Sabres 3-2.

No big deal, huh? Buffalo is one of the worst teams in the league, right? Well, someone still was required to do something, or it’d be time to send the 24-year playoff streak to the history books. Howard was solid and particularly clutch in the final minute, when the Sabres — who scored twice in the final three minutes  — were swarming dangerously.

After getting booed off the ice in a 7-2 embarrassment against the Penguins two days earlier, the Wings had to convince their fans, and maybe themselves, they weren’t out of it. And they’re not, still tied with the Flyers (who have the edge with a game in hand) for the final playoff spot in the East. To finish off the stretch drive, they need lots of things, including dynamic plays from guys like Dylan Larkin and Riley Sheahan, who both scored. Sheahan’s goal was spectacular, an end-to-end rush reminiscent of when the Wings could unleash classic Red blurs.

Red Wings fighting to keep playoff streak alive

More than anything, the Wings need to get settled in net, and while it doesn’t necessarily matter who takes charge, Howard or Petr Mrazek, it’s imperative someone does. Mrazek was yanked from the Pittsburgh debacle but Howard didn’t exactly stem the slide, surrendering three goals on 14 shots.

Jeff Blashill had a day to think about it and went back to Howard, and it could be a telling choice. The Wings play again tonight in Montreal, and Mrazek beat the Canadiens last week, so Blashill’s move makes sense. But Mrazek has been pulled from two of his last three outings, and it might be time to give Howard a chance to settle it down.

Eeny meeny ...

Blashill isn’t offering any clues, probably because he finds the goalies’ ups and downs as confusing as everyone else. He wouldn’t even name tonight’s starter.

“We’re taking everything day by day, and I’ll let everybody know from there,” Blashill said. “But the biggest thing is, we need great goaltending, and I have lots of belief in both guys. And whichever guy’s in the net, let’s get it done.”

The numbers are trending Howard’s way. After an incredible start, Mrazek has struggled for a lengthy stretch, while dealing with a groin strain and the flu. In his past 14 starts, Mrazek is 6-6-2, with a 3.30 goals-against average and a .888 save percentage. Howard’s recent numbers: 3-2-1, 2.80, .911.

Not exactly staggering, but moderately encouraging. Howard was helped by better defensive play Monday night and faced only 20 shots. Buffalo scored twice in the frantic final three minutes and had chances to tie it, but Howard held on. He hopes his experience can help in the tense two weeks ahead.

“Being in this situation before, with a lot of the same faces in this dressing room, it gives you confidence that you can go out there and get the job done,” Howard said. “This was a step in the right direction, let’s build off it.”

No one’s stealing any games lately in net, but this isn’t about stealing, it’s about stabilizing. Howard and Mrazek have flipped roles before, and could flip back. Howard was great the first half of last season, suffered a groin injury and wasn’t the same. Mrazek started in the playoffs, was solid in a seven-game loss to the Lightning, then superb to start this season.

Wings survive Sabres scare in 3-2 win

Mrazek’s early mastery masked the Wings’ deficiencies, and in the heat of a playoff push, the mistakes have been laid raw. The defense has been sloppy, and Blashill benched Brendan Smith for Alexey Marchenko Monday night. A major part of the issue has been the Wings’ inability to possess the puck and keep it out of their zone. The forwards haven’t just struggled to score, they’ve pressed and turned the puck over.

Goal bereft

The Wings cleaned a lot of that up against the Sabres. In the second period, they cycled like old times — I know, it was the Sabres — until Sheahan finally cut loose. But expecting a scoring explosion from this team now is fool’s gold. Goaltending saved the Wings earlier, and if they’re to bump the streak to 25 years, it will have to save them again.

Howard has been here a long time, played through numerous postseasons, landed a nice contract and faced his share of critics. He’s steeled, hardened and surely inspired. Mrazek plays a more athletic style and is more likely to pull off some thievery. But maybe Howard is the one who can calm things down.

“We limited shots, we limited opportunities, and when they did get chances, I thought Jimmy looked real sharp,” Blashill said. “So, I was real happy with the performance.”

The Wings have been in this desperate situation plenty of times the past four seasons. They haven’t won more than two games in a row in over a month. They’ve been good, then bad, with occasional stops at indifferent.

That part is unacceptable, and they knew it after the Pittsburgh game. Losing to the Sabres would’ve sunk the Wings, figuratively but not mathematically. They did several things better, and with six games left, they’ll need to do a lot more. If the scorers can’t do it, one of the goalies will have to, and it might be the guy who has done it before.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski