Howard is backbone of Red Wings' playoff push

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Jimmy Howard's play down the stretch was already making him a fan favorite in Detroit, but the rookie goaltender may have reached folk hero status in Monday night's game against the hated Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the closing seconds of Detroit's 3-1 home win on Monday, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby drilled Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg with at least three crosschecks.

Howard, perhaps showing appreciation for Zetterberg's two goals on the night or his stellar defensive play against Pittsburgh's captain, responded to Crosby's aggression by grabbing the superstar by the head and escorting him to the end boards.

While the crowd at Joe Louis Arena responded favorably to Howard's defense of his teammate, Crosby did not. Amidst the commotion and being restrained by a pair of officials, the two players threw some wild punches at each other but nothing matched the image of the goaltender coming to the aid of Zetterberg.

Jimmy Howard has been coming to the aid of his teammates with superb puck-stopping performances on a regular basis.
"He (Crosby) was taking a couple of jabs there at Z and I just thought I'd help him out a bit," Howard said.

It's a common thread for Howard, who has been coming to the aid of his teammates with superb puck-stopping performances on a regular basis.

Most years the final weeks of a Red Wings regular season involves celebrating yet another Central Division title and gearing up for their annual playoff run. This year has been quite different as Detroit flirted for much of the season with the prospect of missing the postseason for the first time since the spring of 1990.

In fact, the Red Wings are still not safe from that fate. Detroit is currently holding onto the eighth and final playoff seed in the West but has yet to completely shake off the ninth-seeded Calgary Flames. If Detroit does make the playoffs, Howard will deserve a big chunk of the credit.

The Red Wings had a tumultuous offseason after the Penguins won Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena last June, stopping Detroit just short of claiming consecutive Stanley Cups. Detroit lost key players like Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, and Tomas Kopecky to free agency, as well as Jiri Hudler to Russia.

Those losses were necessary to Detroit GM Ken Holland's attempt to get the Red Wings into better shape in terms of the salary cap. The Wings have tons of money dedicated to stars like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski and simply cannot afford to have the same type of depth they had just a few years ago.

The cap casualties have caused Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock to make more adjustments this year than he's probably been used to in his five seasons with Detroit. Undoubtedly, the biggest change was making the switch to Howard as the primary goaltender in Motown.

Howard had been splitting time with Chris Osgood to start the year off, but since late January it has been the rookie's show. Replacing Osgood, who hasn't started since Jan. 27, couldn't have been easy for Babcock, who rode the veteran goaltender to a Stanley Cup in '08 -- the second title for Osgood as Detroit's primary backstop.

Howard has started 19 straight games for Detroit and the club has responded with an 11-4-4 record over that span. Not showing any signs of wear during his first full NHL season, the New York native has been getting stronger during his run of consecutive starts, posting nine of the victories over that span in his last 12 outings.

Perhaps the fact that Howard is not a young rookie (he'll turn 26 years old on Friday) has helped develop the maturity he has displayed down the stretch. The Red Wings brought Howard -- a second-round pick in the 2003 draft -- around slowly, giving him his first taste of the NHL with four starts during the 2005-06 campaign.

All told, Howard had manned the crease in nine NHL games before coming into this season as the backup to Osgood. He has shined in 54 games this year, posting a 29-15-9 record to go with a stellar .924 save percentage and 2.30 goals-against average. Those numbers could lead to a Calder Trophy for Howard as the league's top rookie.

The youngster's latest outing included 26 saves in addition to the scuffle with Crosby, who has become quite unpopular in Detroit after two straight Stanley Cup battles between the Pens and Wings. Sid didn't make any new friends in Detroit when he questioned Howard's place in defending Zetterberg following Monday's game.

"I don't think that's where he should be," Crosby said. "I don't know what he was doing over there."

Crosby may have been confused by Howard's actions, but his Red Wing teammates received the message loud and clear: Jimmy's got their back.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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