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Niyo: Howard saves his best for last in Red Wings goal

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit – The wait had grown interminably long for Jimmy Howard. And the season was getting late for the Red Wings.

But rather than turning back the clock, the veteran Red Wings goaltender did something more productive.

“We’re always at practice early,” said Jim Bedard, the longtime Red Wings goaltending coach. “But we started having what we called ‘early’ early.”

That meant “extra” extra work before the entire team took the ice for practice. And then Howard and Bedard would stay after for more drills following practice.

That went on for a few weeks in the dead of winter, until Bedard could see the familiar signs of life in Howard’s game — the soft rebounds off his pads, the instinctive moves, even the slowed heart rate. He could see Howard was back in the net, even before he was back in net.

“It’s no big secret,” Bedard said. “It’s hard work. The talent is in there.”

And to that point, he adds one more thought about Howard, the one-time franchise goaltender who’d been relegated to the role of backup by a second coach in as many seasons.

“He’s at the age now where he’s in his prime, as far as I’m concerned,” Bedard said of Howard, who turned 32 a couple weeks ago. “I mean, the game has slowed he has seen it all before.”

And so he has, as things come full-circle now for Howard, who has reclaimed the No. 1 role and is expected to make the start in Game 1 of the playoffs Wednesday night on the road against the Lightning. A year ago, the former All-Star was a bystander as then-coach Mike Babcock went with rookie Petr Mrazek in the postseason. And last fall, a new coach, Jeff Blashill, ultimately did the same after the training camp battle for the starter’s job spilled over into the regular season.

“It wasn’t that Jimmy was playing that poorly,” said Bedard, who has worked with Howard for more than a decade. “It’s just that Petr was playing so well.”

At a Vezina Trophy level, in fact, through the All-Star break, ranking first in the league at midseason in most statistical categories, including save percentage, 5-on-5 save percentage and goals saved above average.

“But you look back at the way these guys both played the first 20 games of the year, and that’s why we had the cushion that we had to get in (the playoffs),” Bedard said. “Because they stole games that were unbelievable.”

Indeed, the goaltender probably can take credit for 12-15 points — maybe more — in those early months, whether it was Mrazek stopping 43 shots in the road opener at Carolina or Howard backstopping a pair of 2-1 victories over Tampa Bay.

Losing his job

Eventually, Howard’s play tailed off, and Mrazek seized full control of the crease. Howard just two starts in January, and he went nearly three months between wins. That prompted the inevitable calls for general manager Ken Holland to trade Howard, the backup making starter’s money — he’s in the third year of a six-year, $31.8 million contract.

But that wasn’t happening — this late-season reversal of fortunes is one reason why — and neither was this: Howard wasn’t asking out.

“He never, ever — not once — felt like this is a situation I don’t want to be in,” said Bedard, in his 18th season with the Red Wings. “He accepted what was going on. He never complained, he never bitched, he never moaned. He stayed quiet, he was a great teammate and he battled.”

And for the rookie coach — a guy who’d won a Calder Cup with Mrazek a few years ago — that was more than appreciated.

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“It’s easy to have great character when things are going well,” Blashill said. “But when things aren’t going well, it’s not easy.”

Howard, who might’ve been the Red Wings’ first-half MVP last season, will be the first to admit that.

“It was challenging,” he admitted Monday as the team returned to practice ahead of Wednesday’s playoff opener. “I just think it goes to show you can’t throw in the towel. If you keep working hard, if you keep doing the little things and stay the course, good things can happen to you out there.”

Back in the net

That they did just when Mrazek hit a rut proved to be a good thing for Detroit, too. Mrazek suffered a leg injury in the Feb. 27 outdoor game in Colorado, but his game started suffering a couple of weeks earlier, beginning with that 6-5 victory over Boston on Valentine’s Day at Joe Louis Arena.

Mrazek got chased again in his next start against Pittsburgh, and over the last two months his save percentage is a subpar .886. Bedard can’t pinpoint the exact reason, but fatigue might’ve played a role for the 6-foot-2, 183-pound Mrazek, whose 49 starts were a career high, including his time with Grand Rapids in the American Hockey League.

“He has never played this many games — certainly not at this level,” Bedard said. “It’s a tough grind, game in and game out.”

And now it’s Mrazek’s turn to grind it out as the backup, biding his time.

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“The shoe is on the other foot,” Bedard said, “and Petr’s doing the same thing, knowing he’s gotta work hard and wait for an opportunity. When the door opens, for whatever reason, we’ve got to have him ready to go.”

Howard has no intention of opening that door, of course. And after what he saw last weekend in New York, Bedard doesn’t expect he will. They shared a quiet dinner in New York on the eve of the regular-season finale, “and Jimmy was so excited for that game,” he said.

And though it ended in a 3-2 loss — an empty-netter proved to be the difference — it was the third-period save Howard made on a Kevin Hayes mini-breakaway that stood out.

“He waited, waited, waited, and finally the guy went to his left,” Bedard said of the play, which saw Howard make a terrific pad save to keep it a one-goal game with 4½ minutes left. “At that time of the game, that’s a huge save. And you know what’s on the line.”

Yeah, he knows. But even though he has waited — and waited and waited —nearly two years for this, another shot at the playoffs, “I’m just gonna go out there and do my thing,” Howard insists. “I’m not going to worry about anything else, what other people are saying, I’m just going to go out there and play my game.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Tampa Bay vs. Detroit

Games 5-7 if necessary

Wednesday: at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. (FSD)

Friday: at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. (FSD)

Sunday: at Detroit, 7 p.m. (FSD)

Tuesday, April 19: at Detroit, 7 p.m. (FSD)

Thursday, April 21: at Tampa Bay

Sunday, April 24: at Detroit

Tuesday, April 26: at Tampa Bay