DETROIT — The rest of the hockey world can debate who deserves status as the Red Wings’ No. 1 goaltender. But to coach Mike Babcock, it’s not an open argument.
"I like winning," he said after Friday’s practice. "That’s it. It’s real simple. Everybody in the National Hockey League knows the best guys get to play. If you’re playing the best, you get to play.
"Our players start each game knowing that … Everybody thinks it’s the coach who decides. All the coach does is observe. They decide who plays, not us."
From his observation post behind the Detroit bench lately, Babcock has observed enough to conclude his team desperately needs a change in goal.
Jimmy Howard, an All-Star the first half of the season, suddenly can’t stop a beach ball. Backup Jonas Gustavsson is recovering from yet another injury.
So rookie Petr Mrazek is taking over, for now, as the Wings’ go-to guy. He’ll keep the job as long as his next poor outing — when a complicated situation has the potential to turn into a real crisis, at the worst of times.
Mrazek is a 23-year-old rookie who’s excited to get the start in Saturday’s matinee game against a tough divisional rival in Tampa Bay, but he also understands the situation. He cautioned reporters not to get carried away by recasting the order of the Detroit goalies.
"I don’t think about No. 1 and No. 2," Mrazek said. "I know Howie is still the No. 1 guy here. There’s no question about that. He’s proven himself for so many years, and he’s a mentally strong guy."
Howard played himself out of the job by allowing two goals on the first four shots he faced and three total in the first period of Thursday night’s 6-4 loss to the struggling San Jose Sharks — a perfectly lousy way to celebrate his 31st birthday.
That Howard got the start after giving up five goals in an overtime loss to hapless Arizona was something of a surprise to some, though Babcock rightly concluded that his goalie had earned the benefit of the doubt because of his sterling play before he strained a groin muscle on Jan. 10.
"He’s our starting goalie until he’s not our starting goalie," Babcock said before Thursday’s game, explaining his decision to give Howard a chance at redemption.
Then, ust 19 seconds into that start, the Wings found themselves behind 1-0, and Babcock’s reaction was palpable. And after two more goals before the period ended — each of which Howard would have rejected on even an average night — he was benched in favour of Mrazek.
After spending nearly two hours on the ice Friday, Howard lumbered into the dressing room sweating and smiling. And when he saw a crowd of reporters nervously circling his changing area, he smiled wider, saying, "I imagine you guys want to talk with me?"
He then responded to questions with rapid-fire answers:
What about the debate raging on sports-talk radio about who’s No. 1 and who’s No. 2 among goalies: "It doesn’t enter my mind at all. Not at all."
How’s your health? Any lingering effects from the groin injury that kept you out a month, or anything else: "The groin’s not bothering me. Nothing’s bothering me."
How do you feel about getting benched? "I want to be out there every single night, just like everyone else. It never sets well when I’m sitting. But the coach right now feels like I don’t deserve it, so maybe it’ll be a good thing just to put in a little bit more work here (in practice.)"
Can you pinpoint what’s been going wrong for you lately? "After going over the videotape and talking with our goalie coach, Jim Bedard, I think it’s just a matter of following the puck with my eyes. It’s just that simple … Just a minor hiccup along the way. With a goalie, if you’re not following the puck to the best of your abilities, you’re behind that split second and it can be a big difference."
What about the future? "I’m no different than everyone else in the NHL. Every person goes through this in the course of the season. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that it’s happening right now â- and not two or three weeks from now."
Howard has had some strong performances since returning from his injury, but he’s battled inconsistency. He’s 5-6-2, with pedestrian goals-against and save-percentage numbers.
After watching him give up three goals on a measly four scoring chances in the first period, Babcock announced he was giving Mrazek — by far the people’s choice — a chance when Tampa Bay visits to close out a forgettable four-game home-stand.
Since an auspicious performance immediately after Howard was injured — Mrazek was 8-2 in 11 games that followed — the rookie’s play has been spotty, too. In fact, he gave up two critical goals in the third period Thursday, when the Wings were desperately playing catch up. And Babcock didn’t like the second one, which eluded Mrazek under his right armpit and found the net for what stood as the winning goal.
"They can’t chicken-wing him like that," Babcock said. "That can’t happen … Pete Mrazek has to get himself ready to go. We’ll give him an opportunity here and get that area fixed.
"It’s amazing what can happen when you get a little confidence in that area. It will all settle down and we’ll get to playing better."
Hockey can be like that. When the goaltenders catch a cold, the rest of the team catches pneumonia, suddenly threatening a promising season. The Wings were going so well, in fact, that even Babcock was entertaining thoughts of successful postseason run.
"I said it before, this is our best chance, in my opinion, since ’09," he said. "That hasn’t changed since I said it two weeks ago — but we have. We haven’t done anything.
"Life’s simple for me: When the opportunity is good, the preparation has to be good. And yesterday, when they score, what, 19 seconds into the game? You’re not ready to play hockey. That’s ridiculous."
His players couldn’t agree more.
"We can see what’s going on," defenseman Kyle Quincey said. "Playoffs or no playoffs, if we keep doing this, it doesn’t matter."
Complicating the goaltender situation even more is the eventual return of backup Jonas Gustavsson, who has been out since suffering a head injury at Boston on March 8. He’s been skating this week, calling the workouts "a big step forward." He’s hoping to return before the season ends.
Center Riley Sheahan is day to day with an upper-body injury. Babcock had no updates on Pavel Datsyuk (lower body injury) or Erik Cole (upper body injury). Datsyuk said he was hoping to play this weekend.
— After Saturday’s game against the Lightening, the Wings travel to New York for a 5 p.m. face-off against the Islanders.