DETROIT — Jimmy Howard’s cat-quick reflexes in net and easygoing nature out of it are big reasons the Detroit Red Wings are on a roll.
Howard has held top-seeded Chicago to only one goal in two straight games, lifting seventh-seeded Detroit to a 2-1 series lead. He was the star of the end-to-end, high-paced Game 3 the Red Wings won 3-1 on Monday night, when he became their first goalie to face at least 40 shots without giving up more than a goal in the playoffs since Greg Stefan did it 1987.
“That was probably the fastest playoff game I’ve ever been a part of,” Howard said. “I expect it just to get faster Thursday night. They’re going to step it up. We need to come even harder.”
Detroit will host Game 4 on Thursday night, shooting for a surprising win that would put Chicago on the brink of elimination.
Howard’s glove, pads and mindset give the Red Wings a shot to win every time they put on sweaters with winged wheels. Since Detroit trailed second-seeded Anaheim 3-2 in the first round, Howard has won four of five games and is averaging two goals against and 34-plus saves.
“You have to have a good goalie to go anywhere in the playoffs and we have it,” Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said.
The Blackhawks seem confident they also have a netminder good enough to finish their season as strong as it started. Lately though, Corey Crawford has been shaky — or at least he hasn’t been able to overcome enough of his teammates’ mistakes in front of him.
Crawford won five of his first six games in the playoffs, shutting out Minnesota once and allowing a total of eight goals during his strong start. But he has given up a combined seven goals over the last two games after allowing one goal in the first period of the series opener.
When Chicago began its season-opening run of 24 games with at least a point backup goalie Ray Emery was 10-0 during the NHL record-breaking stretch while Crawford was injured. Emery finished the regular season 17-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average, leaving his last outing early because of a lower-body injury nearly a month ago at Edmonton.
Is Emery an option for Game 4?
“We’re not talking about that right now,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Monday night. And the next day, he was succinct when asked to assess how Crawford has played the past few games.
“He’s been fine,” Quenneville said.
The Blackhawks probably don’t want to put more pressure on Crawford, but they were likely looking for more than him being “fine” in his third postseason as their No. 1 goalie.
Chicago couldn’t afford to keep Antti Niemi after he was the franchise’s backstop when it hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2010 and he beat out Marty Turco for the job the next season.
Crawford has been an impressive 82-40-18 the last three regular seasons, but a lackluster 10-11 in the playoffs. The Montreal native sounds as if he’s ready to bounce back to help the team respond well enough to avoid their first three-game losing streak since the 2011-12 season.
“We haven’t had a lot of adversity this year,” Crawford said. “We just have to dig deep and battle.”
The Red Wings, meanwhile, barely made the playoffs and they leaned on Howard a lot because their team was challenged offensively because of injuries and the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom.
Howard had to play in 42 of 48 games during the lockout-shortened season because he didn’t have a healthy, or capable, backup for much of the season. He was 21-13-7 and tied for the league lead with five shutouts, leading to him getting a $31.8 million, six-year contract to keep him off the market as a free agent this summer.
Like Crawford, Howard has been really good during the regular season — for four seasons as a No. 1 goalie — and average in the playoffs with a .500 record going into Game 4.
In a town where the goalie is in the spotlight, win or lose, Zetterberg said Howard has the perfect temperament for the job.
“Nothing really bothers him,” Zetterberg said. “If he lets in a goal, he just flushes it and moves on.”
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