Perhaps you've noticed this phenomenon as the playoffs approach: There's a lot of concern being expressed about the goaltending of some top contenders, yet little seems to be directed at the Detroit Red Wings.
Now, that could strike you as being a little strange. After all, Detroit has been to the past two Stanley Cup Finals and to every postseason since 1991 but always has goaltending questions dogging it as the playoffs roll around.
|Howard stepped forward while veteran Chris Osgood took steps back. (Getty Images)|
Detroit has heated up in a hurry this month, going 9-2-1 since the Olympic break and beating several of the league's top teams in the process. The Red Wings have taken over the eighth seed in the West with a bit of a cushion, and have also moved into position to finish as high as fifth. More to the point, they have now claimed the unofficial title of being the team no top seed wants to face in an opening round.
Howard has been in goal for all the games during the post-Olympic run, part of 20 consecutive starts in which he has made the most of his first true shot at being a go-to guy for Detroit.
"It's a lot easier when you get out and play," said Howard, who has gone 12-5-3 during his streak.
It's also a lot easier to erase some doubts within the organization when you play. The 26-year-old rookie has been in the Red Wings system for five seasons but has developed slowly, even by the organization's patient standards. And in his brief previous appearances with the big club, Howard seemed incapable of gaining the confidence of coach Mike Babcock.
Problem was the Red Wings didn't have the cap space to add goaltending during the offseason, and veteran Chris Osgood failed to distinguish himself when he and Howard split the duties the first half of this season. So Howard became almost a default choice when he took over as starter in late January, and as a result, he has set himself up for the kind of scrutiny he hasn't had to worry about all season.
But he's earned it.
"Suddenly he's in top three numbers in three categories," Babcock said after Howard picked up his 30th win by stopping the St. Louis Blues. "That's fantastic.
"He's a young man, and only time will tell whether he can do it 10 years in a row. But he looks like he's a goalie. He battles, he has a good attitude and he's getting better. So good for us."
|Complete Playoff Race|
Even better for the Wings is the fact they are healthy, really for the first time all season. Detroit has again been able to put together two big scoring lines with Pavel Datsyuk centering Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom, and Henrik Zetterberg in between Todd Bertuzzi and Valtterri Filppula. So these days Detroit is getting the offense, playing the kind of puck possession game it's known for and, in the process, turning the debate about them from whether they can make the playoffs to how far can they go.
It's a far cry from when several obit writers wrote them off early in the season, suggesting that the perfect storm surrounding the team made it an opportune time for the league's model franchise to accept a bump in its dynastic run and recalibrate.
Detroit did lose several key players to free agency last summer, and even more to long injuries soon after the schedule began. And before long, the Red Wings had essentially relinquished their eight-year hold on the Central Division title to the Chicago Blackhawks, so the fatalists' arguments had some merit.
But while the Red Wings generally struggled to stay around the playoff cutoff line as bodies healed, they never fell too far below. Howard has played better than anyone expected, the defense led by perennial Norris candidate Niklas Lidstrom has been effective, and now Detroit is entrenched in the playoff pack. And it has veteran players who have gone through deep playoff runs in the past two seasons much fresher than they would usually be, along with role players who generally see limited ice time having had a chance to handle more responsibility.
"It was tough with a lot of guys injured, but at same time, guys who aren't used to playing a lot of minutes get more and gain confidence," Zetterberg said. "When you get back healthy and you have those guys with that experience, it's better."
Especially when the timing is right.
"The fun part of the season is coming up," Zetterberg said. "There's a good chance of us making that, and when we're in, we're going to have a good team."