Howard Will Be Playoff Starter, But For How Long?

The 43-year-old goalie, destined someday for Hall of Fame enshrinement, was losing his mojo at the worst possible time.

It was the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008. The Red Wings had carried a 2-0 series lead into Nashville and advancement into the conference semi-finals seemed assured.

But then Dominik Hasek imploded.

Hasek gave up two relatively soft goals in the third period of Game 3, nine seconds apart, turning a 3-2 Red Wings lead into a 4-3 deficit, just like that.

In Game 4, Hasek was again shaky, letting in two goals within 32 seconds in the first period, then when the Red Wings scored in the second period to make the score 2-1, Hasek let another puck slip by him just eleven seconds later. The Predators won and tied the series, 2-2.

The Red Wings left Nashville, surrendering their series lead and with the Predators brimming with confidence.

Confidence is what Hasek, despite his age and wealth of experience, lacked.

The Red Wings were suddenly in a tricky first-round series against an inferior opponent. It wasn’t the first time.

Six years earlier, the Vancouver Canucks stormed into Detroit and won the first two games of that first round series. Hasek was in goal for that one, too, and he didn’t play well.

Coach Scotty Bowman stuck with Hasek in that series, and the star-studded Red Wings rallied to win four straight over the Canucks. Six weeks later, the Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions—and Hasek was among the brightest of stars.

But Hasek was 37 in 2002 and he was 43 in 2008, with his confidence waning.

Coach Mike Babcock openly complained about the pucks going into the Detroit net as the Red Wings prepared for Game 5 of the Nashville series.

So Babcock, not one to bow to sentiment or to misplaced loyalty, made a change in net for Game 5.

Babcock summoned Chris Osgood, a two-time Cup winner, and inserted Ozzie between the pipes.

The change was not taken lightly. Switching goalies in the middle of a playoff series, especially with a team that had high hopes like the Red Wings in 2008, carried great risk.

Osgood was brilliant as the Red Wings won Game 5 in overtime. And Osgood was good the rest of the way, as Hasek never started another playoff game. The Red Wings won another Cup—10 years after Ozzie led the Wings to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

It says here that Babcock’s decision to replace a future Hall of Fame goalie, in the middle of a first round playoff series, is among the most courageous coaching moves in Detroit sports history.

It also says here that Red Wings fans shouldn’t be surprised if Babcock pulls another 2008-like move this spring.

The playoffs are nigh. And the crooked eye is being turned on goalie Jimmy Howard. Again.

Howard suffered through an uneven (being kind) season last year. Some might say he was downright awful at times.

But the soon-to-be 31 year-old (March 26) Howard started this season as if on a mission, and he was rightly lauded for bouncing back strong.

That was then.

Lately, Howard is making fans nervous. He’s not as sharp as he was earlier in the season.

Adding to the angst is the thought that young backup Petr Mrazek, who’s played well in his 21 games with the Red Wings, might be the one who ought to start in the playoffs.

That notion is far-fetched, but the motivation behind it is understandable.

Howard, frankly, deserves to start in Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s earned that right. The Red Wings aren’t paying him millions to take a seat in favor of a rookie, for gosh sakes.

But don’t be taken aback if Babcock shows little patience with Howard and does a switcheroo. In the middle of a series.

It might not even be so much an anti-Howard move as a pro-Mrazek one.

Babcock loves Mrazek’s swagger. He loves it that the 23-year-old Czech firmly believes that he will be a star in the NHL. And the coach has liked what he’s seen from Mrazek in spot duty.

It may not be this spring, but sometime in the near future, Petr Mrazek will be the Red Wings’ no. 1 goaltender. That seems to be the track on which the Red Wings have the Czech.

Mrazek might not play a minute in the playoffs this spring. That wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world, because it would mean that Jimmy Howard is doing OK.

But Howard, once again, has to earn trust—of the fans and, more importantly, of the coach.

Or else Babcock might summon his inner 2008.

Don’t be surprised.

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