Howard key to a Wings’ playoff run

Jimmy Howard was the man Friday night against the Washington Capitals.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — Jonas Gustavsson has been excellent this season when healthy but if the Red Wings are going to make the playoffs, Jimmy Howard has to be the man.

Howard was the man Friday night against the Washington Capitals.

Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth had a career-high 42 saves, but Howard was just as good with his 26 saves through regulation and overtime.

Then Howard was perfect in seven rounds of the shootout, giving the Wings a 4-3 victory and a valuable two points in the standings.

"It’s huge, it’s definitely huge," Howard said. "Right now it’s all about getting two points and trying to climb our way up the standings again."

The Wings now have 59 points and sit eighth in the Eastern Conference. But that changes on a daily basis as the teams are clumped tightly together.

The Wings held a 3-2 lead late in the third period but Alex Ovechkin scored with seven seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime.

"We just missed a lane there at the end and Ovechkin’s a dangerous guy, as you know," Wings coach Mike Babcock said.

Ovechkin extended his league lead to 39 goals.

Before then, the Capitals had several chances to tie on the power play as Tomas Jurco was in the box for slashing. Howard made six saves during the penalty kill.

"Ever since the Winter Classic, Howie’s been like Howie is so he’s capable of doing good things for you," Babcock said. "He can hold you in, he made huge saves on the penalty kill late, they had good chances and he made great saves."

As it has so many times, the game went to a shootout. 

Round after round, both Neuvirth and Howard made save after save.

Ovechkin shot second for Washington but Howard was ready.

“I made a conscious effort to take away his shot," Howard said. "His shot is extremely lethal and just the way he shoots the puck, the way he cups it at times on his stick makes it hard where it’s coming off. I just tried to come out and cut his angle off."

While Howard was stopping Ovechkin and company, Neuvirth was preventing Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Tatar, Henrik Zetterberg, Darren Helm, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan from scoring.

Finally, in the seventh round, Patrick Eaves broke through.

"I was watching the guys that went before me," Eaves said. I" got to see it from a vantage point of going in on him right away. He was so patient with the other guys. He didn’t come out very far, but was so patient. I just wanted to get a good quick shot off on him.

"Howie was a rock star. We needed to get those two points for him and ourselves."

Howard was playing in his first game since leaving the St. Louis game Jan. 20 after tweaking his left knee, the same knee that forced him to miss eight games before the Winter Classic.

"I felt surprisingly good, I didn’t have any issues at all with the knee, which I think is a great sign because I came back last time and still felt it every once in a while," Howard said. "But didn’t feel it at all tonight so I think that’s a great sign moving forward."

Howard is now 10-12-8 with a 2.65 goals-against average and .916 save percentage while Gustavsson is 13-4-3 with a 2.59 goals-against and .910 save percentage.

Howard, who will play for Team USA in the Olympics, has had great moments this season and not-so-great moments, mostly inconsistency brought on by missing time due to injury.

But on Friday night, Howard showed why he can be a difference-maker.

"Just trying, to be honest, get back into the lineup here and get points for the guys," Howard said. "That’s all that matters right now."

The Wings will see the Capitals for the third time Sunday in Washington, where the Capitals are 14-9-4.

"I think it will be a lot different game," Howard said. "We’re going to have to get our rest here and get ready for Sunday afternoon."

Howard will likely be back in net then and he’ll have to be just as good as he was at home on Friday.