Wings goalie Howard stealing games, playoff spotlight

DETROIT — Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has never felt comfortable.

“I’ve been an underdog all my life,” Howard said after he shut out the Chicago Blackhawks, 2-0, in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday. “Coming from a small town, people always said, ‘You’ll never have an opportunity; you’ll never have a chance to do that (play in the NHL).'”

“For me, I just relish it. I kinda like playing that (underdog) role.”

Howard turned aside 28 shots while earning his second career playoff shutout. It gave his seventh-seeded Wings a commanding 3-1 series lead against the top-seeded Blackhawks. Game 5 is Saturday night in Chicago.

From the first period on, Howard was in a zone. Even though the Wings were a bit sluggish early, Howard had their backs.

“I thought we did an excellent job again tonight,” Howard said. “We were a little bit slow out of the gates, but after the first period, we definitely turned up the speed.

“Can’t say enough about the guys in front of us. We’re doing a great job of getting above them, cutting them off, not letting them come with speed.”

As much as Howard likes to deflect the spotlight away from him, the fact is, this playoff run rests on his goaltending abilities. Many were questioning the Wings’ sanity when they signed him to a six-year, $31.8 million contract extension last month.

Critics of the deal said that Howard was a good regular-season goalie but that his playoff numbers were unimpressive; he had never really stolen a playoff game.

They can’t say that anymore. His play in Game 4 even got the attention of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, who stopped by the Red Wings’ locker room afterward to offer his congratulations to Howard.

“We have all the world of confidence in Howie right now,” Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said of Howard. “Even if we make mistakes, he’s going to fix them for us.  

“He’s been so good for us, I wouldn’t change him for anything.”

Coach Mike Babcock, not known for using hyperbole, was more straightforward when describing his goalie’s play.

“Howie played well,” Babcock said. “We pay him to do that. Howie has been in a groove for a while.”

Howard doesn’t seem to care what anybody says about him.

“I always had faith in myself, always believed in myself that I can go out there and play extremely well in the playoffs,” he said. “So far in the playoffs, I think I’ve done that, but we still have a long ways to go. It’s great the position we’re in, but now we got to work harder.

“I think it’s a lot of hard work paying off. It doesn’t have anything to do with the contract talks. I just learned from my mistakes in the past and pressed forward, and continued to work and get better every day.”

When asked if he thinks he’s won over the city with his play, Howard said that he doesn’t know. He claims to be a hermit during the playoffs and spends his down time sleeping.

While doing all that sleeping, Howard said that he’s been dreaming a lot — vivid and in-color dreams.

If he keeps up his spectacular play, Howard’s future dreams will be full-blown, 3-D extravaganzas — always ending with him hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Only he won’t be dreaming.