It is the fate of any goaltender who plays in Detroit that true acceptance by the fans will never occur until a deep run into the playoffs is made. A Stanley Cup is not mandated, but pretty close.
Before the Red Wings made winning the Cup an expectation rather than a hope, back in 1997, the goalies who paraded through town were seen as part of the problem, not THE problem.
The Greg Stefans, Glen Hanlons and Tim Cheveldaes were never considered elite goalies, and they played in Detroit when the team was still in the growing pain stage—that period when the Red Wings were starting to lurch out from the horrors of 60-point (or worse) seasons and toward respectability.
But the expectations changed when first Mike Vernon, then Chris Osgood, guarded the nets for the Red Wings when they won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1997-98.
After those Cups, goaltending was thrust front and center. You could have all the stars and future Hall of Famers that you wanted, but it still came down to the man between the pipes.
That’s why the Red Wings coughed up big bucks for high profile goalies like Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph in an attempt to stay elite. Hasek was huge in the 2002 Cup run, but Joseph fizzled in 2003 and 2004.
Old pro Osgood rescued the Wings in 2008, entering the fray in the middle of a scary first round series with Nashville, and a struggling Hasek didn’t sniff the goal crease the rest of the way.
Fast forward to 2014-15.
Jimmy Howard is doing his level best to wipe away memories of a mediocre 2013-14 season. He was called out by numerous fans and know-it-all bloggers (including this one) as his numbers ballooned last winter. He sort of got it together come playoff time, but the overall body of work was still pedestrian at best.
In October and now extending into November, you can make the case that Howard has been earning the people’s trust back—though there will always be the anti-Jimmy haters.
Rarely, if at all, have you been reasonably able to point to a game the Red Wings lost this season as being squarely on the shoulders of the goalie.
Does Howard still let in a stinker or two? Of course. But so does every goalie, contrary to popular belief.
The bad news for Jimmy Howard is that with the exception of Joseph, who was in Detroit for only a couple of seasons, Howard is the only Red Wings goalie in over 20 years who has played an appreciable amount of time without leading his team past the second round of the playoffs.
Not all of that is his fault, of course. Howard isn’t exactly playing with a bunch of future Hall of Famers currently, and the Red Wings rosters in his time have not measured up to those of the Cup-winning teams (four between 1997 and 2008).
Sadly, that fact doesn’t really matter.
Fans here are conditioned to have a Cup-capable team, and the Red Wings’ resurgence with younger players is putting more coal into that fire of expectation.
We can talk all day about how good Hank Zetterberg looks this season. We can continue to rave about Pavel Datsyuk. We can gush over kids like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Smith. We can be impressed by how Justin Abdelkader is blossoming into a key, young veteran.
But Jimmy Howard is still the elephant in the room.
The feeling still prevails that the Red Wings will only go as far in the playoffs as their goalie will take them.
The wariness is warranted. Howard has yet to be the best player in any playoff series he’s participated in. That seems harsh but it’s the fact of life in the NHL, especially in Detroit.
The Red Wings were on the brink of the Conference Finals in 2013, holding a 3-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Hawks’ depth won out, barely (overtime of Game 7). Other than that flirtation, the Red Wings’ playoff runs haven’t really come close to the Final Four since 2009.
It’s up to Howard to change that, fair or not.
The brisk start is encouraging; Howard hasn’t played this well in a couple years, at least.
It still won’t be good enough until the play of October and November is matched—and raised, frankly—in May and (gasp!) June.