DETROIT — When you think of the Detroit Red Wings, goalie Jimmy Howard doesn’t usually come to mind.
You think of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, maybe even Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen.
But so far through the first three games of the Western Conference semifinal series with the Blackhawks, nobody on the Red Wings has had a larger impact than Howard, who has stopped 96 of 101 shots.
“Through his play and through his work ethic, he’s come a long way,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday. “We handled him real well, kept him in the minors a long time, and he’s really developed into an important goalie for us.
“We need better goaltending now than we ever did, and he’s provided it for us. He’s strong in there and he’s competitive and composed in there. We don’t ever talk about our goaltending. If Howie doesn’t play good, we never talk about how Howie didn’t play good. You only talk about your goaltending when it’s no good. We probably should talk about it more, I guess, because it is good.”
Howard has been one of the reasons why Hawks captain Jonathan Toews doesn’t have a goal in the series. Toews had 7 shots in Game 3 but was frustrated by the combination of Howard and Zetterberg.
“He’s an extremely hard worker,” Howard said of Toews. “He’s one of those guys that goes to the net hard. He does have a great shot and we’ve done a great job of limiting his ice and not giving him very much time when he does have the puck.
“He’s the heart and soul of that team and sort of sets the tone for them. I think when it comes to him, just him going out there and working hard gives that team success. I don’t think he has to go out there and score goals. They’re such a deep team, they’ve got so many guys that can go out there and score for him. He’s one of those guys where you got to go out there and outwork him.”
Babcock said Toews is going through something similar to what Zetterberg experienced in the first round against Anaheim.
“Zetterberg went five games or something like that without scoring a goal in the first series,” Babcock said. “The thing we focus on is limiting the opportunities, not limiting scoring. If you limit the opportunities, that’s your best bet.
“Last game, I thought we were good for the first two periods, then we stood around and watched them play in the third. We can’t play like that if we’re going to have success in Game 4. We’ve got to play a full 60. Whether it be Toews, or (Patrick) Kane or (Patrick) Sharp or (Marian) Hossa — they’ve got a whole bunch of depth, but those are the four guys up front that can’t have space. If they have too much space, they’re going to hurt you eventually.”
This is a different role for the Red Wings, that of the underdog. And they like it.
“A lot of people have counted us out for many years now, saying we we’re too old and our leadership is getting too old, but those guys just go out there and prove the naysayers wrong,” Howard said. “A lot of people picked the Hawks to sweep us in four and here we are playing great hockey against them.
“It’s different. Most years the Red Wings are always the heavy favorite. The bar has been set so high from guys before us. You can sense the heart and passion the guys have in the dressing room — we want to go out there and not only play hard for our fans, but for the guys that were here before us.”
The Red Wings expect to see the Hawks’ best effort in Game 4 on Thursday.
“We know they’re going to come out flying,” Howard said. “It’s going to be on us to focus in even more and get the job done. Don’t overthink anything, don’t get too excited, keep our emotions in check. Just go out and continue that same style of playing fast and getting on top of them.”
Howard stopped 39 of 40 shots in Detroit’s 3-1 win in Game 3.
“He’s given us a chance to win games all year,” Zetterberg said. “It seems like he has stepped up his game in the playoffs. Last game he was outstanding for us, and I believe he’ll do it again.”
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