Howard dishes shutout in much-needed win

DETROIT — You see it so often when the playoffs roll around but it’s nearly as true in this shortened NHL season — the goaltender is the most important player.

For the injury-depleted Detroit Red Wings, that is more true than ever.

True, Wings goalie Jimmy Howard can’t help the team’s struggling power play, but if he prevents the other team from scoring, the Wings will win.

The Wings needed Howard more than ever Saturday night against the Central Division rival Nashville Predators, who came into the game fourth in the Western Conference standings.

Howard was more than up to the challenge, making 33 saves in a 4-0 shutout, snapping the Wings’ five-game losing streak (two in overtime).

“He made a great save there at the end to keep the shutout going,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I thought he was really good early when the game was right on the line. They were better than us early and he was good. Really good for him but more importantly, good for us. We needed the win.”

It was Howard’s first shutout of the season, the 12th of his career.

“Shutouts are sort of … they get credited to the goalie, but they’re more of a team aspect,” Howard said. “You need everyone pitching in for myself to go out there and get one. I think it’s more of a team stat.”

The Predators were all over the Wings in the first period, yet it was the Wings that emerged with a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Drew Miller’s rebound goal at the net.

“The first period was Howard. It was all Howard,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “He was outstanding in the first.”

The Predators have now been shut out a league-high five times and remain the NHL’s lowest-scoring team.

Yet they were the ones with more quality scoring chances, including a breakaway by Matt Halischuk in the first period that could have tied it and changed the entire complexion of the game.

“I thought he played a great game,” Miller said of Howard. “We count on him to play like that every night and he does. I think the save at the end, big toe save, was huge. He wanted the shutout and he earned it.”

Howard was so good that even when his team took the dreaded 2-0 lead early in the second period, he didn’t relinquish it.

The Wings had blown 2-0 leads in three of their last five games coming in.

“It’s real big,” Babcock said. “When you haven’t won, it doesn’t matter what the score is, the lead’s never safe. It’s just a confidence thing. Confidence in pro sports comes and goes in a hurry, so this is a big win for us.”

Although Howard earned his first shutout, it wasn’t even his best game of the season. That came Feb. 10 when he made 45 saves in a 3-2 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

“Each game is different,” Howard said. “Against L.A., you’re out there and you get into a rhythm with making saves. And (Saturday night) we did a better job of controlling the puck and playing in their end quite a bit. They’re throwing a lot of pucks at the net. That’s what they do. All four lines funnel to the net and then they crash, and we did a great job of picking up sticks.”

By winning Saturday night’s game, the Wings jumped from 10th in the West to eighth. They’ve already given away points and can’t afford to give away any more because the schedule gets tougher in the second half, with more games away from home.

“It was huge,” said Daniel Cleary, who scored the Wings’ fourth goal on the power play, Tomas Holmstrom-style. “We didn’t even need to say anything about that before the game because everybody knows in the shortened season, the margin for error is almost nil.”

The Wings are hoping to get a few of their injured players back next week, but even when they do Howard and Jonas Gustavsson will have to be at the top of their game.

Gustavsson, finally healthy after missing most of the beginning of the season, will make his first start Sunday evening against the Vancouver Canucks.

In three games played against the Canucks, Gustavsson is 0-2 with a 4.08 goals-against average and .878 save percentage.

The Wings need him to be a lot better than that — Sunday and the rest of the season.