Howard gets nod tonight; 'he has to be better'

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Jimmy Howard has a 2.43 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 50 games this season.

Detroit – If there was any question about who the Red Wings' starting goalie is, coach Mike Babcock snuffed it after Thursday's morning skate.

Jimmy Howard is the undisputed No. 1 goalie, with Petr Mrazek continuing to back him up.

Howard caught much of the criticism following Tuesday's 5-4 overtime loss to Arizona, with fans wanting to see Mrazek in net Thursday against San Jose.

But Babcock went back to Howard, who turned 31 Thursday, and gave the goalie a vote of confidence.

"He's our starting goalie until he's not our starting goalie," Babcock said. "I've been here a long time and I've had a lot of goalies and we've had a lot of goalies struggle. But your guy normally is your guy, and if he isn't your guy, you find another way to go.

"But the bottom line is he played two good games and we couldn't keep it out of our net the last game."

Howard comes into Thursday's game with a 21-12-10 record, a 2.40 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Decent enough numbers, although the GAA and save percentage have ballooned in recent weeks -- since Howard returned from a groin injury he suffered Jan. 10 in Washington.

Howard is 5-5-3 since that time – 2-4-1 in his last seven starts – and his inconsistency was typified by the last two games, stopping 23 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory over powerful St. Louis, then the ugly loss to lowly Arizona.

Babcock blamed Howard -- and the players in front of him.

"He has to be better, our group has to be better," Babcock said. "We have to find ways to win. We can't give up five goals like we did last game. We gave up two power-play goals and I thought our penalty kill was outstanding. We have to do a better job of keeping the puck out of our net.

The Wings have 90 points, sixth in the East. The Sharks have 78 points, 11th in the West.

"We have to buckle down. We had an off-day yesterday, we should be fresh. We have a team (San Jose) that's playing for their playoff life, and let's be honest, we're playing for our playoff life. We have to dig in and play well and embrace the opportunity."

Babcock hasn't disclosed his goaltending rotation for this weekend, but with back-to-back games Saturday (Lightning) and Sunday (at Islanders), it's likely Mrazek will get one of the two.

Kronwall in, Datsyuk out

Niklas Kronwall (lower body) returned to the lineup Thursday but Pavel Datsyuk (lower body) missed his fifth consecutive game.

Datsyuk took part in the morning skate but still largely skated on his own and didn't test himself physically.

"No, not today," said Datsyuk afterward. "I was shooting for today but it's not working.

"Every day is better. I'm more confident and I have more power."

Datsyuk isn't surprised these games in the final weeks of the regular season have become so difficult.

"There are lots of tough games, everybody is pushing for the playoffs," Datsyuk said. "Every game is closer to the playoffs and it's not easy to win."

Kronwall was a late scratch before the Arizona game but participated in Thursday's skate and was cleared to play.

"He's a leader," said Babcock of Kronwall. "He does it right every night. You don't replace good players."

Babcock realized Kronwall and Datsyuk were missing from the lineup against the Coyotes quickly.

"You notice that," Babcock said. "If they've been out a long time you don't notice it anymore, you just find a way to win without them. It's what you do. But in the short-term, it affects you."

Ice chips

Erik Cole (upper body) will not play, with Stephen Weiss joining the lineup after being a healthy scratch the last five games.

... Babcock made an interesting observation about how teams that are winning tend to be more patient.

"When you're playing real well, you tend to be more patient," Babcock said. "Goals are going to come. When you're not playing well, you get impatient and you're forcing things. Odd-man rushes are a disease of impatience.

"It's not a race. A lot of shifts are 50-50 and nothing happens in the game. You wait, keep grinding, keeping doing things right."