It gave New Jersey 100 points after the team missed the playoffs last season and it was the Devils' first win in Detroit after nine straight losses. The game also was Martin Brodeur's 30th win, the 14th time he has reached that mark in his career. And Petr Sykora scored the winning goal with 8:40 left, his 20th of the season, in the veteran's return to the NHL after playing in Europe last season.
"It always feels special to play in this building," Sykora said. "Over the years I've had a lot of bad games here because the team is so good."
The Devils will finish sixth in the Eastern Conference.
"It's nice to have 100 points. But you throw that out Monday morning because it's time for the playoffs," New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer said.
The Devils won at Joe Louis Arena for the first time since Nov. 6, 1996. New Jersey swept Detroit in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1995.
Brodeur, who made 23 saves, said he really wanted to play in Detroit against the Red Wings.
"A good place to get it [his 30th win]," the NHL career victory leader said. "Just before the playoffs, I wanted to get a feel for the road. ... It's a good team. I just wanted to test myself in this type of game."
Sykora beat Howard from in front after taking a pass from Patrik Elias to break a 1-1 tie.
"Kind of had that number  in the back of my mind but that seemed kind of far after not having played in the league for the last couple of years," said the 35-year-old Sykora, who played in the Czech Republic and Russia last season after playing only 14 games for the Minnesota Wild in the NHL in 2009-10.
Alex Ponikarovsky also scored for New Jersey.
Tomas Holmstrom scored for Detroit, fighting Central Division rivals Nashville and Chicago for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Howard stopped 19 shots.
The Red Wings were coming off a 3-2 shootout win in St. Louis on Wednesday night.
"I knew it was going to be grinder right from the get go," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "We were stretched last night to overtime and I thought we really pushed our big players hard last night. I didn't think we had a ton of energy."
With one game left the Red Wings, who dropped to fifth in the Western Conference, need to beat the Blackhawks on Saturday and need the Predators to lose in regulation in order to finish in the fourth and final home playoff spot. A regulation loss to Chicago means Detroit would finish sixth, behind the Blackhawks.
Ponikarovsky opened the scoring with 9:47 left in the first period when he put in a rebound for his 14th goal. Holmstrom tied it on a power play 6:13 into the second period. He put Jiri Hudler's cross-crease pass into an empty net for his 11th goal.
Detroit only has seven goals in its last five games. ... The Red Wings signed center Riley Sheahan to a three-year entry-level contract. The 20-year-old Sheahan was Detroit's first-round pick (21st overall) in the 2010 draft. Sheahan was with the team, but didn't play. ... Red Wings forward Danny Cleary didn't play because of a knee injury that has plagued him for much of the season. ... Detroit C Darren Helm skated Thursday morning for the first time since spraining his left MCL on March 17. General manager Ken Holland said he expects Helm to return during the first round of the playoffs. ... Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey returned after sitting out a one-game suspension for elbowing Florida's Tomas Kopecky in the face Sunday. ... New Jersey RW David Clarkson returned after missing a game with a lower-body injury. ... Devils coach Pete DeBoer once coached the suburban Detroit-based Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. ... New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene is from the Detroit suburb of Trenton.