In a test of goalie endurance, Mrazek has pulled ahead of Howard

The pucks went into the net fast and furious. The red light went on behind the goalie so often, he got a sunburn on the back of his neck.

It was a rough night at the office for Glen Hanlon, but with typical aplomb befitting him, he was able to crack wise about it afterward.

“Who replaced the net behind me with a soccer goal?” Hanlon quipped.

Hanlon, the ginger who played between the pipes for the Red Wings from 1986-1991, was in net on February 23, 1988 when the Philadelphia Flyers stormed into Joe Louis Arena and smacked the Red Wings, 11-6. Hanlon allowed 10 of the 11 goals that night.

But Hanlon put that nightmare evening behind him and scored two shutouts in his next four starts.

Hockey players are known for wearing the “C” on their sweater but it may as well stand for “confidence.” Never is that more true than with goalies.

You know goalies—that odd breed of athlete.

Hockey goalies are either nuts or savants. They either know something we don’t, or they’ve been sniffing the goal post paint.

Why else would you suit up and face vulcanized rubber discs fired at you?

The mental aspect of the position has swallowed some netminders whole. Even the Hall of Famers have had their moments—and by that I mean, where they could be fitted for a straitjacket.

Glenn Hall once played in over 500 consecutive games, without a mask, which makes him the Supreme Nut. And Hall went through a ritual before every game where he would throw up, like clockwork. It was every bit as normal as Brendan Shanahan tapping the blade of his stick for good luck as he stepped onto the ice every night.

Roger Crozier retired briefly, in his 20s. The reason? The stress of being a goalie threatened to consume him.

Jimmy Rutherford once told of having dreams where pucks were flying at him from all different directions, all at the same time.

Dominik Hasek is a very nice man, but he’s crazy, too. Hasek was as quirky as Felix Unger.

So don’t try to tell me that goalies are the same as everyone else walking this planet.

But it all comes down to the big “C”—confidence.

If you lose it as a goalie, you can’t stop a beach ball. And the net behind you turns into a soccer goal.

Petr Mrazek, the Red Wings goalie for whom you want to buy a vowel, has morphed into the team’s no. 1 netminder. It’s been a non-hostile takeover, but a takeover nonetheless.

Coach Jeff Blashill began the season with good intentions. He alternated goalies, a la the great Boston Bruins teams of the early-1970s.

But lately, Mrazek has been the man. He’s the one playing with confidence. Mrazek has started three straight games, which under Blashill is akin to Glenn Hall’s streak.

Jimmy Howard is no. 2. He’s the one with the shrinking “c” on his sweater.

Howard’s last two starts have ended the same way—with him on the bench, wearing a baseball cap.

On December 22, Howard started at home against New Jersey and 14 minutes and three goals later, his night was finished.

A week later in Winnipeg, Howard lasted 31 minutes and surrendered four goals. His save percentage in those two games combined was .650, which is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 12.

Howard hasn’t seen the ice since, as Mrazek is playing with flair and with the big “C.”

When it comes to confidence, by the way, you won’t find a goalie in the NHL with much more of it than what Mrazek has.

Confidence—some call it swagger—has been Mrazek’s calling card from the moment the Red Wings scouts first saw him play in the Czech Republic.

The Red Wings nabbed Mrazek in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, which is about right. The Red Wings have made a killing in the later rounds over the past 25 years or so. It’s as if their scouts knuckle down when other teams’ start to lose interest.

Mrazek hates to be scored upon, and not because of fear of the red light—because of disdain. Teammates marvel at his intensity, even in practice.

Petr Mrazek

Mrazek has seized the Red Wings’ no. 1 goalie job—or so it would appear.

Now, no goalie likes to be scored upon. This is hardly a trait unique to Mrazek. But Mrazek’s brimming confidence/swagger raised the team’s eyebrows when they scouted him, and nothing has changed since.

Mrazek pitched two shutouts at the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning in last year’s playoffs, when coach Mike Babcock chose the kid over the veteran Howard to be his post-season goalie. And had the Red Wings survived that first-round series, Mrazek no doubt would have remained the no. 1 guy throughout the playoffs.

Blashill took over last summer and he said polite things about Howard, who is going to be 32 years old in March. Then Blashill declared an open competition in training camp, and to the coach’s delight, his decision about who was no. 1 was rendered excruciating, mostly thanks to Howard’s solid play. The 23 year-old Mrazek was up to the task, as expected.

So Blashill decided that his decision on who would be the primary starting goalie would be…neither man. Hence the alternating goalie system out of the gate.

But like a long distance foot race, the younger man is pulling ahead.

Mrazek threw a shutout at the Devils on Monday night, so it would make sense that Blashill will start the Czech for a fourth straight game, at San Jose on Thursday.

As for Howard, it can’t help his confidence that seven of the 20 most recent shots he’s seen have eluded him, and that he’s been pulled in two straight starts.

But Howard is a goalie, and goalies are used to having their confidence ebb and flow. They all know that when they sign up for the job. And they do so, gladly.

Because they’re kooky.

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Blashill Uses Harry Sinden Model (for now) Between Red Wings’ Pipes

It’s an old line, first mined in the world of football.

“If you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one.”

It’s derisive and dismissive.

How can a football coach have two quarterbacks, when only one can play at a time?

Must mean that said coach has no quarterback at all—because he can’t rely on a designated starter.

Some would have you believe the same is true in hockey.

“If you have two goalies, then you don’t have one.”

Horsepucky!

Tell that to the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the late-1960s, early-1970s.

Starting in 1968-69 and extending for four seasons, the Bruins divvied up the goaltending duties in a virtual 50/50 fashion.

Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers took turns in net for Boston, literally.

It didn’t matter if one of them posted a shutout; the next game, the other guy would be between the pipes.

The 50/50 model was the brainchild of coach Harry Sinden, who worked that system for two seasons before successor Tom Johnson carried on the tradition after Sinden moved into the general manager’s chair prior to the 1970-71 campaign.

Cheevers Johnston masks

The goalie masks of Boston’s Eddie Johnston (top) and Gerry Cheevers.

During those four seasons of goalie equality, Cheevers appeared in 174 games, Johnston in 137. Not exactly 50/50, but neither netminder played more than a few games in a row while Sinden and Johnson rotated the tandem.

The Bruins’ goalie duo was somewhat innovative in those days.

The Bruins, an Original Six team, were like any other team from practically the inception of the NHL, in that one goalie played virtually all the games while the second—they were called “spares” in those days—only appeared when the first-string guy was knocked senseless.

Goalies would get traded, but they were traded for each other, often times, to keep everything neat and proper.

I’ll give you my number one guy if you give me yours!

The Red Wings, in the 1950s, had, at various times in the decade, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Glenn Hall. All were firmly established number one guys. It would take an act of God for spares such as Hank Bassen to find themselves in net.

But along came Sinden and his system wasn’t so much genius as it was born out of necessity and logic.

The Bruins were an awful team for much of the 1950s and that tradition of futility carried over into the 1960s as well. And the Bruins lost with just one goalie, because that was the norm in the NHL.

Johnston, for example, played in all 70 of the Bruins’ games in 1963-64—and he won just 18 of those.

But then the Bruins claimed Cheevers from Toronto in the intra-league draft in 1965, and Sinden found that he had two quality goalies.

What to do?

Play both of them! Not at the same time, of course—though the Bruins could have done so and still not won too many games.

Cheevers, a few years younger than Johnston, arrived in Boston in ’65 and soon Coach Sinden had the two of them rotating in net.

No doubt that Boston’s two-headed goaltending monster was derided by league fans and observers.

But something funny happened on the way to ignominy.

The Bruins, thanks to a dynamic, pioneering defenseman they drafted named Bobby Orr, and a terrific trade that netted them Phil Esposito, started to win hockey games.

The Bruins became a league power by the end of the 1960s, and they did so with goalies Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston each playing pretty much every other night.

The 50/50 model even carried over into the playoffs, though not right away.

In 1970, Cheevers appeared in 13 playoff games, going 12-1. Johnston only played once. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

But in 1972, Johnson restored the 50/50 model for the post-season, and again the Bruins won the Cup—with Johnston going 6-1 and Cheevers, 6-2. They literally were rotated by Johnson on a nightly basis.

The Dynamic Goalie Duo split in the summer of 1972 when Cheevers fled the Bruins for the fool’s gold of the World Hockey Association (Cleveland Crusaders). Cheevers returned to the Bruins in 1976, but by then Johnston had also moved on, to St. Louis.

I invoke Boston’s trailblazing goalie strategy because, early on, it appears that the Red Wings of today are taking a page from the old school Bruins’ playbook.

Last month, new coach Jeff Blashill arrived at Traverse City for his first training camp at the Red Wings’ helm. Right away he was socked in the kisser with a dilemma.

Jimmy Howard, or Petr Mrazek?

Which goalie would Blashill tab as his no. 1 guy between the pipes?

Mrazek and Howard

Mrazek (left) and Howard have split the duties 50/50 so far this season

Would it be the veteran Howard, whose injury troubles and poor play down the stretch last season conspired to cough up the starting job to Mrazek for the playoffs, or would it be Mrazek, the confident, almost sassy youngster whose future looked to be brighter than snow reflected on a sunny winter’s day?

Blashill, a former goalie himself, played it close to the chest protector during camp.

The best guy would get the job, he declared as camp began.

Trouble was, neither guy was the best guy, because both guys played pretty darn good in the exhibition season.

So Blashill, no fool he, showed his hockey brilliance.

He went into the regular season with no clear cut no. 1 goalie, so he decided that Howard and Mrazek would rotate.

And it wasn’t because of the old football postulate; Howard and Mrazek could each start on a lot of NHL teams, and not just on the bad ones.

Through eight games of this young season, each Red Wings goalie has started four times. Their save percentages are virtually the same (Mrazek .925; Howard .924).

The  Red Wings schedule has been Blashill’s friend; his team has played three back-to-back sets of games already, which lends itself well to giving each goalie a night off in those scenarios.

But Blashill will likely keep rotating Howard and Mrazek even when the schedule loosens up.

It works out well, because Mrazek, 23, is way too good to be playing in the minor leagues, and Howard is getting a little long in the tooth (32 in March), so not playing 60-plus games this season should keep him fresh all season.

As for the playoffs, Blashill will worry about those when it’s time.

It’s refreshing, actually, to see an NHL coach—especially a rookie one—embrace a two-goalie system, which teams have been abandoning over the past decade or so as the league again has become enamored with the old school model of an established number one netminder who plays at least 60 games.

The Red Wings have two goalies, but it’s not because they don’t have one.

2015-16 Red Wings: The young and the restless

When it comes to the Red Wings, they have a streak about which you might have heard.

No, not that streak.

This isn’t about the 24 consecutive years of making the playoffs, which started with the 1990-91 season.

This is about another streak that’s brewing.

Five years—and counting—of not advancing past the second round of the post-season.

The 24-year streak of the Red Wings qualifying for the playoffs is cute; the five-year streak of first and second round defeats isn’t.

What good is making the playoffs if you’re being drummed out after a round or two?

Here’s captain Henrik Zetterberg, talking about expectations under new coach Jeff Blashill.

“We are tired of going through the whole season and then when the fun starts, we are only there for two weeks.”

Bingo.

The Red Wings have had two strong Stanley Cup contenders on the ropes in the past three playoffs, but weren’t able to close the deal.

In 2013, Detroit held a 3-1 series lead over the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, but couldn’t win that fourth game.

Last spring, the Red Wings jetted home from Tampa with a Game 5 win in their hip pocket, giving them a 3-2 series lead in the first round. But alas, the Lightning won Games 6 and 7.

Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, they’ll drop the puck for real to start the 2015-16 season when the Red Wings welcome back Mike Babcock and his new team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A lot has changed for the Red Wings since that tough loss in Game 7 in Tampa on April 29, and I think one of the most important is the team’s mindset.

The Red Wings are, as their captain said, tired of the playoff beat downs that have been occurring every year since 2010 before the conference finals start.

“We are not dwelling on 24 years,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “We are dwelling on the fact that we have lost in the first round a couple of times. We are definitely hungry, that is for sure.”

Combine the veterans’ annoyance and restlessness with the injection of youth and seasoned free agents—plus a new man behind the bench—and the Red Wings seem to be going into ’15-16 with a renewed determination.

It simply is no longer acceptable to just make the playoffs.

It’s time for some serious spring hockey to return to Detroit—hockey played when the building’s air conditioning and ice cooling systems strain against May and June’s warmth. Hockey that competes with Memorial Day barbecues.

Here’s the deal. The Red Wings will, indeed, make the playoffs when the curtain draws on the 2015-16 NHL season.

So that “other” streak will be extended, to 25 years.

But that’s not what this organization is all about. The longer the Red Wings go with early playoff exits, the more the post-season streak threatens to define the franchise.

Then it has the possibility of getting cartoonish. The franchise will turn into a caricature.

The Red Wings made the playoffs? What’s new?

They’re out of the dance before May?

Again, what’s new?

Players like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen are playing with one eye on the ice and the other on the calendar. Time stops for no hockey player. The autumn of their careers is nigh.

Thank goodness the Red Wings employ maybe the best amateur scouts in professional sports, bar none.

The men charged with beating the bushes of Moose Jaw and searching the ponds of Krylbo are, probably even as you’re reading this, discovering  a second line winger for the 2019-20 season.

Thanks to the scouts’ tireless work, the Red Wings are getting younger, but they’re not getting worse.

The first wave of youth—Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Danny DeKeyser, to name a few—held the team together a few years ago when attrition and an inability to sign free agents threatened to plunge the hallowed Red Wings franchise into hockey purgatory.

Now those players are young veterans. To someone like teenage rookie Dylan Larkin,  the 26 year-old Nyquist must make Larkin feel like he’s playing with Gordie Howe.

Via free agency, the Red Wings added defenseman Mike Green, who’s in his prime at age 29, and wily veteran center Brad Richards, who’s 35 but not yet ready for a rocking chair.

Those were two nice, smart pick ups that didn’t really break the bank. The Red Wings were fortunate to snag Green for just a three year commitment.

Another young player, goalie Petr Mrazek, is enough of a threat to Jimmy Howard’s tenuous status as the no. 1 netminder to push Howard into a sense of urgency about his job—which is probably what Jimmy has needed for a few years.

Then there’s Blashill, the rookie head coach.

Blashill is a rookie by definition only, as he’s never run his own NHL team. But he isn’t Brad Ausmus.

Blashill has been at this coaching thing for nearly 20 years, starting when he was in his twenties.

He’s new, but he’s not. He’s a rookie, but he’s not.

Blashill didn’t need too many personal introductions when he got the Red Wings job in June. His relationship with many of the players goes back to either when Blashill was a Red Wings assistant (2011-12) or when he coached them at Grand Rapids over the past three years.

His voice is fresh, yet familiar.

That’s a pretty good—and rare—combination in professional sports.

So what does all this mean for the Red Wings’ chances this year?

I don’t do predictions. One, because I’m usually wrong. Two, because who cares? In March, Sports Illustrated picked the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. It’s easy to go out on a limb and be wrong. No one will care. But if you get lucky, you can brag all day.

So I’m not going to say something silly here that I can wave in everyone’s face in June.

I will say this: the time for one-and-done in the playoffs for the Red Wings must end next spring.

The team is seemingly a nice blend of youth, experience and raw, still unmolded talent.

The coach isn’t learning on the job.

Everything is in place for some May hockey.

So, Katie bar the door, Johnny on the spot, stand on his head, put the biscuit in the basket and all that rot.

Drop the puck already!

Howard, 31, isn’t clear no. 1 goalie anymore

It was the grizzled old umpire Nestor Chylak who might have been talking about any number of positions in pro sports, but he was specifically referring to his brethren in blue.

“They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on.”

Nestor could have been talking about being a goaltender in the NHL. More directly, being a goalie in Detroit.

In the NFL, the best quarterback is the backup. Same thing in hockey with goalies.

Jimmy Howard is 31 years old, will turn 32 before next season is completed, and wasn’t he just a young whippersnapper?

Wasn’t Howard, a couple of blinks ago, the guy who was taking over for Chris Osgood and had his whole NHL career in front of him?

Wasn’t Howard going to be the next goalie to lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup? Joining Mike Vernon, Osgood (twice) and Dominik Hasek as Cup-winning goalies since 1997?

Wasn’t Howard that kid from the University of Maine who was going to be the first American-born goalie to win a Cup in Detroit?

That probably wasn’t a fair expectation, but who says the fans—and their expectations—are fair?

It probably wasn’t fair because Howard didn’t have the team in front of him that those Cup-winning goalies had in Detroit.

Howard became full-time goalie of the Red Wings when the team began a transition from a veteran-laden, Hall of Fame-sprinkled roster to a younger, more homegrown version that relied very little on big free agent splashes.

But Howard didn’t have chopped liver in front of him, either.

Not once did Howard lead the Red Wings past the second round of the playoffs since assuming the netminding duties in 2010, and fair or not, that has been his legacy in Detroit.

Now Howard is 31 and it looks like he’s yesterday’s news.

The new Red Wings coach is Jeff Blashill and while he hasn’t said so publicly, there is nonetheless a deep feeling that when the boys gather for training camp in Traverse City in September, it won’t be fait accomplit for the coach to write in Howard’s name as no. 1 on the depth chart.

The best goalie in Detroit is so often the one sitting on the end of the bench wearing a baseball cap.

Petr Mrazek is the fans’ darling right now. Lots of that feeling comes from the simple fact that his DNA isn’t Jimmy Howard’s.

Mrazek isn’t Howard and that alone qualifies Petr as being the no. 1 guy, if you listen to sports talk radio and read the comments section of newspaper websites.

Mrazek was named the starting goalie in last spring’s playoffs by then-coach Mike Babcock, and that decision only added fuel to the “Howard is on his way out” fire.

Mrazek played well in the playoffs, shutting out the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning twice in the seven-game, first round loss. And Mrazek was the better goalie down the stretch, as Howard battled back from a groin injury.

But is Mrazek, at age 23, ready to assume the reins as the no. 1 guy in Detroit?

Howard is signed through the 2018-19 season at a cap hit of about $5.3 million per year. Mrazek is signed through the upcoming season at a cap hit of about $550,000.

That’s the new math of pro sports these days. You don’t just make decisions based on performance or merit anymore. You have to take into consideration a player’s contract status.

It’s one thing to say, “Start Mrazek!”

It’s another thing to actually do something with Jimmy Howard.

The Red Wings won’t pay Howard $5.3 million a year to be Petr Mrazek’s backup. Anyone who thinks that is delusional to the extreme.

But what is Howard’s trade value?

Howard will turn 32 in March. He doesn’t have a playoff resume that you would write home about. He has never really “stolen” a playoff series. He continues to be the purveyor of the “soft” goal that can break a team’s spirit. He is a good goalie but he isn’t elite.

The Red Wings might get hosed in a trade involving Howard—i.e., they may have to pay a considerable amount of Jimmy’s salary in order for another team to take him off the Red Wings’ hands. The rest of the league’s general managers know that if Detroit’s Kenny Holland shops Howard, Holland will be doing so from a position of weakness.

As for Mrazek, he’s certainly talented and more importantly, he appears to have the mental toughness and makeup that you want from your starting goalie.

But he’s still just 23 and to put all the eggs in his basket is still a risk.

One thing is for sure: the Red Wings didn’t lose their playoff series to Tampa Bay because of goaltending. An uneven offense did them in.

Really, that’s all you can hope for in the playoffs: for your goalie to not lose the series for your team. As I write that, I have brutal flashbacks to Bob Essensa in 1994 and Manny Legace in 2006.

Mrazek didn’t lose the series to the Lightning. Frankly, he played well enough for his team to win, for the most part.

Howard hasn’t really lost any playoff series, either. But he hasn’t stolen any, and Jimmy has had six playoffs in which to do so.

Howard goes to training camp this September as a man who must fight for his no. 1 job, unless he is traded before then.

Mrazek can still afford to head into camp loosey-goosey and with nothing much to lose.

But as we all know, it’s one thing to be the up-and-coming kid and quite another to be the no. 1 guy with the bull’s eye on the back of your oversized sweater.

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.

As usual, spring is when Howard will be judged, fair or not

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.Phoenix Coyotes v Detroit Red Wings - Game Four

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.

As usual.

Gustavsson in for Howie Again, Who Gets “Breather”

Mike Babcock is doing it again.

Back in 2008, during the first round of the playoffs, goalie Dominik Hasek was having a devil of a time stopping the puck, specifically in Game 3 and 4 against Nashville. The Red Wings lost both games, losing a 2-0 series lead. The Predators were scoring in bunches, which is how they won the the two games in Nashville.

Babcock said that the “puck can’t keep going into the net,” and made what I thought was one of the gutsiest moves by a Detroit coach, and that was to replace Hasek with Chris Osgood for Game 5 and for however long the Red Wings would last in the playoffs.

The Red Wings went on to dispatch the Preds in six games and won the Stanley Cup—with Osgood in net.

Tomorrow night against the Bruins in Detroit, Babcock will go with backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson in goal for the second straight game instead of Jimmy Howard. Gustavsson was in net on Sunday in the Red Wings’ 3-1 win in Buffalo.

Babcock used a similar line after Howard’s latest loss—4-2 against Ottawa on Saturday.

“The puck’s going into the net,” Babcock said.

Howard, this season, has bore little resemblance to the confident goalie with swagger who stepped onto the ice with a chip on his shoulder. His numbers tell most of that story.

Howard is 5-7-6 with a 2.72 GAA and a .908 save percentage. Gustavsson, on the other hand, is 5-0-1 with a 2.35 and a .926.

“Let’s be clear, we’ll go as far as Howie takes us,” Babcock said, as reported by the Detroit News’ Ted Kulfan. “He’s an elite goalie who it hasn’t gone as good as he’d like to lately. We’ll give him a breather to work with Jimmy (Bedard, Red Wings goaltender coach).”

And as for Gustavsson?

“You can’t ask from your second goaltender more than we’ve got from him,” Babcock said.

Howard seems to know what the problem is, even if fixing it is far more complicated.

“Maybe I put a little too much on my plate, and for me personally, I just to have concentrate on going out and stopping pucks,” Howard said. “(I’ve been) trying to go out there and trying to make everything look great when all you have to do is keep the puck out of the net.”

For more about Howard’s struggles this season, go here for something from the Winged Wheeler and here for something from Bleacher Report’s Matt Hutter.