By Darren Eliot
January 18, 2010

For the first time in 15 years, the script is vastly different for the storied Detroit Red Wings. Instead of gradually gearing up for a Stanley Cup run, the Wings know the playoffs aren't a certainty this time around. Beset by injuries, their depth has been taxed to the limit. In the past, injuries afforded the regulars some rest while the front office and the fans got a glimpse of prospects toiling in the AHL.

It is against this unusual but not unforeseen backdrop that the Red Wings are now operating. In their nightly scramble for precious points, they are finding out what they have and what they need. GM Ken Holland knows that he'll clear plenty of cap space after the season. Coach Mike Babcock understood that this campaign wouldn't be about 50-wins and another Central Division title. It was going to mean finding different ways each night to just get to the postseason.

What Detroit didn't know was how much it could expect from goaltender Jimmy Howard. Selected 64th overall in the 2003 entry draft after his freshman season at Maine, Howard had a high profile as an amateur, including a year (2001-02) with the U.S. National Team Development Program. After turning pro, he bided his time in Grand Rapids, playing 186 games for the AHL Griffins over four seasons. His sporadic call-ups produced a 1-5 record and more questions than answers about his development as a NHL goaltender.

Back in the beginning of October, the Wings' brass really didn't know how the goaltending scenario would play out. Veteran Chris Osgood struggled most of last season before righting himself and performing brilliantly in the playoffs. But it was back-up Ty Conklin's 25 wins that carried Detroit. Could the 25-year-old Howard be expected to produce to that degree? Would the Red Wings have to rely heavily on the 37-year-old Osgood? Would it be a shared situation?

Well, the sharing has been mostly Osgood sharing wisdom as mentor to Howard the grateful go-to guy. Osgood has always been team-oriented, so his support isn't surprising. But a cantankerous veteran attitude could have really soured this process. Instead, Osgood has allowed Howard to flourish freely to the point where he is now performing better at the NHL level than he did in the AHL. His 2.18 goals-against average ranks sixth in the NHL and his .928 save percentage is third-best. Pretty heady stuff given the questions coming out of training camp -- questions that only intensified when Howard lost his first two starts in October.

Since then, though, Howard has lost back-to-back in regulation just one other time. Excepting Detroit's lifeless 6-0 loss to the Islanders on January 12, when he was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals on 20 shots, his consistency has been the most impressive and surprising aspect of his season. It's the one attribute that has him playing the majority of Detroit's games, as Osgood has started 18 compared to 30 by Howard, including the last 12 in a row, through Sunday. As Babcock stated, "We need points. We need wins to make the playoffs. He is giving us the best chance to be successful."

In seasons past, Howard's rise to prominence as a first-year starter would have been a nice sidebar. This year, it's a big story, and it's come at the perfect time for a team that needs his steadiness just to avoid an unusually early offseason.

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