Tampa, Fla. — They have both played for the Red Wings long and well, but this season is a little different for Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard.
Neither has been entirely satisfied with their performance.
Kronwall, who appears at times to have slowed at age 35, says he still is determining exactly what is affecting his performance.
Howard, whose 32nd birthday is Saturday, started the season sharing duties with Petr Mrazek after he was named an All Star in January 2015. But when Howard hit a rut, similar to the inconsistency that daunted him when he attempted to return from a torn groin last season, Mrazek excelled for two months and locked down the top slot.
Last weekend, Kronwall returned from a sprained knee, assisted on the tying and winning goals and blocked four shots against the Panthers.
Howard kept his team in the game when turnovers and some less than effective defense exposed him and contributed substantially to the 3-1 deficit. Only a late goal by the Blue Jackets the previous game kept him from a shutout in a fine, 27-save performance.
A .933 save percentage his last five appearances is strong evidence Howard has regained his sharpness.
Teammates laud his persistence through tough times.
Jeff Blashill said Kronwall remains a pillar, and has been one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL during his career. The coach also said Howard has his full confidence, and his teammates feel the same way.
Despite having to shut down in January for arthroscopic knee surgery to clear up some damage accumulated over the years, Kronwall rejects any notion injuries have played a role in his performance this season.
And, he believes he is improving.
“It’s getting toward where I want to be,” he said after working out under the stands before the game against the Lightning on Tuesday.
“I still think I got some work to do.
“In that way, it’s been a rough start, then slowly starting to get towards where I want it to be.”
As for precisely what occurred, Kronwall said he is puzzled.
“I wish I had a simple answer,” he said. “I really do. It would be a lot easier to fix and fix it a lot sooner. But, for whatever reason, it’s been a bit of a struggle.
“But, you know, right now, that’s in the past and just looking forward to get these last few games and help the team make the playoffs.”
At his age and in his last season, some diminishing in pace would seem natural. Kronwall said he is not sure that is the explanation.
“I think it’s been a mix of everything,” he said. “A little bit of everything, to be honest with you.”
Howard’s fight back
In his seventh full season with the Red Wings, Howard saw his ranking as the No. 1 goaltender slip away. But he immediately said he was determined to put in the hard work necessary before and during practice with goaltending coach Jim Bedard to put things right.
Despite playing in 13 of the last 37 games, including Tuesday, Howard managed to get the job done.
It was not an easy accomplishment for a player used to playing 50-60 games per season.
“You know, it’s just my job to be ready when called upon,” he said.
As for his improved performance, Howard spoke about the importance of it for the team.
“It’s good because we desperately need the points right now,” he said. “The guys have played two really good games in front of me, and hopefully tonight is no different.”
In addition to his hard work while not playing, Howard said part of it is having gone through a perilous playoff drive the past few seasons.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything, you know, being in this situation before and battling and coming out on top of it with the guys,” he said. “Being in this position of pushing for the playoffs and accomplishing it.
“That helps with the confidence and being able to step in there and play, right away.”