Howard benched as Wings fall to Sharks, 6-4

Jimmy Howard made seven saves, but allowed three goals in the first before being pulled for backup Petr Mrazek.

Paul Sancya/AP

DETROIT — You know you’re having a bad game when the guy skating out to replace you gets one of the biggest cheers of the night.

So it was Thursday night for embattled Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard when Petr Mrazek glided toward the Red Wings net to start the second period.

Unfortunately for the Red Wings, the onslaught continued as another eminently beatable visitor walked into The Joe and put up a five-spot — then an empty net goal to clinch it — on the suddenly porous Detroit defense.

Neither Detroit goalie distinguished himself in the 6-4 loss to San Jose, and suddenly the Wings have a crisis on their hands as they try to right a sinking ship. With Howard struggling mightily and Mrazek taking the loss in relief, coach Mike Babcock skirted a postgame question about who his team’s No. goalie is. But he provided a pretty good hint.

"Pete Mrazek has to get himself ready to go," Babcock said. "We’ll give Pete an opportunity here to get that area fixed."

After a bad outing in Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to a bad Arizona club, Howard had a shot at redemption against the tanking Sharks. But after giving up three goals on four scoring chances in the first period, he got the hook.

"He’s a proud guy and we gave an opportunity to come back, but obviously it didn’t go the way he wanted it to," Babcock said, concurring with a question about Howard battling mental issues with his game.

"I agree with you," Babcock told his questioner. "I haven’t talked to him. I’ll leave him alone tonight and talk to him tomorrow. But now we’ll give Petr Mrazek an opportunity here."

There’s never a good time for a team to have goaltending issues. But with just nine games remaining before the playoffs — if the Wings qualify for the postseason — this is a horrible time to have to worry about what once was the team’s most stable position.

Howard was easily the Red Wings’ most valuable player in the first half of the season. He carried the team on his back for the first six weeks of the season, when goals were hard to come by. His performance then as one of the top two or three goalies in the league earned him an invitation to compete in the NHL All-Star game.

Then his season went south — only an hour or so after learning of his selection — when he strained a groin muscle that kept him out for more than a month. He’s 5-6-2 since then.

Mrazek, who played so well in Howard’s absence, has been erratic lately, too.

"We need him to bunker down and play the way he’s capable of playing," Babcock said. "But that goes for everyone else, too. We’re all in this together.

"Today and the last game, we’ve given up a lot of goals (11), and that’s not the way we want to play. That’s not Red Wing-like. So we’ll come in here tomorrow. We’ll have a good talk, a good practice, and we’ll get it fixed."

The loss was Detroit’s eighth in the last 11 games. During that time, the Wings have given up 41 goals for a whopping 3.73 goals-against average.

Still, as bad as things went on the ice for the Wings (39-22-12, 90 points), they didn’t lose ground in the standings. Ottawa lost to the New York Rangers, and Boston fell in overtime at home to Anaheim.

So both the Senators and the Bruins remain five points back of Detroit. Ottawa has nine games remaining, and Boston has eight.

Playing catch-up hockey all night after falling behind 2-0 in the game’s first 10 minutes, Detroit got goals from Tomas Jurco, his third of the season and first in 39 games since Nov. 26; Tomas Tatar, his team-leading 27th; Stephen Weiss, his eighth; and Justin Abdelkader, his 22nd.

Danny DeKeyser had two assists, but he didn’t mince words about the dire straits his team faces if it doesn’t find a way to turn things around quickly.

"We haven’t been good enough and executing well enough the last couple of weeks, and that’s something that has to change if we want to make the playoffs," Dekeyser said. "We’ve got teams behind us that are closing in on us, and they have been for awhile now. So we have to figure it out now pretty quick."

Captain Henrik Zetterberg suggested this is the time the Wings can rely on some valuable stretch-run experience.

"We know the situation we’re in," he said. "We know where we are in the standings, but we’re used to this. The last 2-3 years, we’ve played ourselves into the postseason. We have had a lot of pressure on us at the end of the year, so it’s nothing new for us.

"We’ve just got to embrace that and keep playing good hockey, and we’ll be fine."