By Allan Muir
The last time the Red Wings skated in the Winter Classic, they relied on their backup goaltender against an old rival.
Looks like it could happen again when they face-off against the Maple Leafs at the Big House in Ann Arbor on New Year's Day.
Detroit GM Ken Holland confirmed this morning that Jimmy Howard suffered Grade 1 sprain of his MCL in practice on Wednesday. The injury could keep him out of the Wings' lineup for 2-to-4 weeks, putting his participation in the Winter Classic at risk.
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A lengthy stay on IR won't help Howard's chances to earn the No. 3 job for Team USA in Sochi, either. The Americans will announce their roster on Jan. 1, after the Winter Classic. Howard hadn't done his candidacy any favors during the last month (2-4-5, .903 save percentage), but his experience and personality had kept him in the running.
Now? The best-case scenario for him would be a return in time for Detroit's games on Dec. 28 in Florida and Dec. 30 in Nashville. If Howard heals any slower than that, his Olympic audition is over.
U.S. GM David Poile will take a chance on one injured goalie -- the Kings' Jonathan Quick -- but for him to roll the dice on a second seems highly unlikely, especially with Ben Bishop playing so well for the Lightning. He's seemingly ideal for the third-string role.
With Howard out, the weight of carrying the Wings through December, and into the Winter Classic, falls on backup Jonas Gustavsson
. The Monster has arguably been the best No. 2 in the league this season, going 8-1-2, with a 1.93 GAA and .933 save percentage. The way Gustavsson has been playing, he gives Detroit a better chance than Howard of bumping its Winter Classic record to 2-0.