From 2009 until now, Jimmy Howard has known that when he was healthy, he was the No. 1 goalie for the Detroit Red Wings.
That began to change in last year’s playoffs, when Petr Mrazek posted two shutouts in Detroit’s first-round loss to Tampa Bay – Howard only played one period in the seven-game series – and it has continued this season.
First-year coach Jeff Blashill has been splitting the time on a fairly equal basis – Mrazek has started 19 games and Howard has 17 starts – but the veteran has been the one having the tougher time dealing with the situation. Howard has been yanked four times already this season, including each of his last two starts.
On Dec. 22 against the Devils, Howard started and made routine saves on the first three shots he faced. The next three, though, went in, and he was pulled after just 14:17 in favor of Mrazek – the second-shortest start of his career that didn’t involve an injury.
Tuesday, he returned to the ice in Winnipeg and things didn’t get much better. He got deeper into the game, but was pulled midway through the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots. Not all the goals were his fault – one was tipped by his own defenseman and he was completely screened on another – but former Red Wings goalie Darren Eliot showed on the FOX Sports Detroit post-game show that Howard was struggling with his position and picking up the puck all night.
“That was just an unacceptable performance,” Howard said on the post-game show. “I’ve got to be better than that if I’m going to give the guys a chance to win. It doesn’t matter if a shot gets tipped or if there is a screen – my job is to find a way to make saves, and I’m not doing that right now.”
Howard’s last two starts have produced some very ugly numbers – in 46 minutes of action, he allowed seven goals on 20 shots – a save percentage of .650 and a goals-against average of 9.13.
“This is new to me – I’ve never gotten pulled from back-to-back starts before,” he said. “That’s tough to handle, but the only way I know how to fix it is to get back onto the rink and keep working. That’s how this game works. You learn from your mistakes and then you forget about them and find a way to get better.”
Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill hasn’t blamed either game on Howard, saying he has made the changes to fire up the team.
“Tonight, we get a four-minute power play and end up giving up a shortie, and then they score on a five-on-3,” Blashill said. “That’s not on Jimmy, but when we get down 4-0, you have to do something to dig yourself out of it.”
The strategy worked to some extent the first time – the Red Wings were within 3-2 by the end of the second period before losing 4-3 to the Devils – but not in Winnipeg. Mrazek stopped all 11 shots he faced, but Pavel Datsyuk’s third-period goal was all Detroit could muster in reply.
That’s not a new problem for the Red Wings – they rank 22nd in the league in goals – which makes the goaltending even more important. In turn, that’s what is making life more difficult for Howard.
He refuses to use his lack of work as an excuse – “you have to be ready when your number is called” – but he’s clearly having trouble finding a rhythm in a game-sharing arrangement. Until the last two games, he wasn’t playing terribly – his .910 save percentage is right in his normal range, and he’s only slipped below the league average in the last week – but he’s not playing as well as Mrazek.
According to Hockey Reference, Mrazek has made 14 quality starts – a .737 rate – and hasn’t had a disastrous outing. He’s also posted a .927 save percentage. Howard’s got nine quality starts (.529) and three disasters.
Right now, Detroit’s occupying one of the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots, so if anything, Blashill is going to have to start giving more time to his hotter goalie. That will mean Howard, whether he’s struggling from a lack of regular work or not, certainly isn’t going to get any extra ice time.
His ability to play well while playing less could become a huge factor for the Red Wings in the second half of the season.