The Detroit Red Wings were the NHL’s hottest team coming into the playoffs, in no small part because they were riding a rookie goalie who was a lot better than anyone might have expected.
But there were still questions about how Jimmy Howard would handle his first playoff situation for the Red Wings and after three games in this quarterfinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes, you can see why.
Howard wasn’t the only reason the uncharacteristically tentative Red Wings lost 4-2 at home to Phoenix in a nationally televised game on Sunday that left them behind 2-1 in the series. But he certainly played a role. In fact Howard is arguably the biggest reason Detroit is facing a surprisingly uphill battle
His play has been anything but steady, in marked contrast to what is happening at the other end. Ilya Bryzgalov, a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy and the Hart Trophy as league MVP this season, has been giving his upstart team a chance to win in each of the games so far, while Howard, well, has not.
Jitters might have explained Howard’s effort in the series opener, even though it was his best effort to this point. Truth is the rookie Red Wings netminder has been fighting the puck since the outset of the series in the desert, and if it wasn’t apparent before, it had to be after Detroit dropped this pivotal Game 3.
The Red Wings seemed to be turning the tide in the series against the upstart Coyotes with their big win in the desert the other night. Howard wasn’t particularly sharp in that one, letting Phoenix come back three times after his team scored. His teammates bailed him out by exploding to win the game in the final period, but whatever momentum this veteran team might have carried over disappeared less than a minute into Game 3 when Howard was caught out of position on a goal by Coyotes forward Sami Lepisto.
Howard was slow to get over on Wojtek Wolski’s go-ahead goal in the final minute of the second period – a sweet moment for the Phoenix forward because he victimized Justin Abdelkader who did the same to him for a key goal in Game 2. But the Red Wings goalie’s worst miscue came midway through the third period less than two minutes after his team narrowed their deficit to 3-2 when he blew a shot to the short side by Radim Vrbata. That restored the Coyotes two-goal lead and let them get into the prevent defense mode they play so effectively.
Of course you could and should give the Cinderella Coyotes their props too. Phoenix got caught up in a run-and-gun affair in Game 2, but recalibrated very quickly and got back to doing what they do best which is keeping things tight, taking advantage of opportunities, and having Bryzgalov work his magic in goal.
The general sense coming into this series was that if Phoenix had any chance of upsetting a playoff tested team that has been to the last two Stanley Cup Finals, Bryzgalov would have to be the difference maker. Compared to Howard so far, he is.