Good for the Red Wings that they have goaltenders lined up like the Ohio State Buckeyes have quarterbacks.
Much like OSU has leaned on a third-team quarterback to win two hugely important games to advance to Monday’s national championship game, the Wings are pinning their hopes on Petr Mrazek to preserve their comfortable place in the standings, at least until help arrives from sick bay.
After starting the season in the minors, Mrazek, 22, finds himself Detroit’s No. 1 goalie after a stunning turn of events Saturday for starter Jimmy Howard — by far his team’s MVP through the first half of this season. Barely an hour after learning Howard had been selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game for the second time in his six-year career, his season came to a painful halt.
Less than two minutes into the game, Howard appeared to suffer a serious groin injury after a miscommunication behind his net led to a Washington power play goal. Moving frantically from his left to right in the crease, Howard was lunging backward and apparently lost an edge with his left skate before sprawling awkwardly, rolling over and lying motionless on his knees. Eventually, he was placed gingerly on a stretcher and wheeled off the ice.
"I don’t know much about it," Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the game when asked about the injury by FOX Sports Detroit’s John Keating. "We’ll have it looked at and we’ll see what happens.
"The way I look at it, Pete Mrazek now has an opportunity."
Mrazek finished the game, stopping 10 of 12 shots he faced in a 3-1 Detroit loss. All three Washington goals came after giveaways in the sloppiest two periods the Wings have played in the four games of this six-game road trip. The loss dropped Mrazek to 5-3-1 this year.
He has been Detroit’s backup since Jonas Gustavsson went down with a dislocated left shoulder on Nov. 5. Gustavsson has been skating with the team in practice, rehabbing the injury with the expectation of returning to play within a couple of weeks.
Ironically, Gustavsson was arguably Detroit’s MVP down the stretch last year. With Howard having an off year because of several nagging injuries, Gustavsson came up huge in several important late-season games. He finished with a 16-5-4 record with a 2.63 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
But with their top two goaltenders out now, the Wings turn to Mrazek, who will get the start Tuesday when the Wings play at Buffalo. Mrazek’s backup for that game? Likely Tom McCollum, who owns a 10-8 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in Grand Rapids, of the American Hockey League.
The Wings think the world of Mrazek, and it’s apparent the way they play in front of him. Detroit’s management thinks highly of him too — enough so that the club thought seriously about starting the season with him in Detroit as Howard’s backup. In the end, the team decided to re-sign Gustavsson in order to give Mrazek a bit more seasoning in Grand Rapids.
Instead, Mrazek is getting his baptism under fire in the NHL this season. Suddenly he’s become the most important guy in the lineup. But the good news is that this is barely mid-January, and Mrazek has an extraordinary opportunity to develop his game and prove he belongs in games that aren’t so pressure-packed.
After all, we’re a long way the deciding game in the Stanley Cup Finals, unlike Ohio State, which is relying on 22-year-old Cardale Jones to win a national championship Monday against Oregon — in his third start.