Saturday, May 25, 2013

And Then There Were None

"Twenty-three little Indians all standing on a plank...."

The second round series between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks became a murder last Thursday night. Strike that, this isn't a murder so much as a massacre. The victims are many; Jonathan Toews' reputation as a clutch player, Joel Quennville's manhood, the validity of the NHL's regular season and the dreams of an entire city were all snuffed out at once in game 4. It was murder all right but for anyone watching there was no mystery about "whodunit": Jimmy Howard, in Joe Louis arena with a flurry of absolutely filthy stops. Make no mistake folks; the Chicago Blackhawks came to the JLA armed for bear. They had every intention of putting the Red Wings on the carpet early and finally solving the riddle that is Jimmy Howard. They left with nothing; no goals, no momentum, no idea how to stop the Big Red Machine and by the end of it they didn't even have their pride. Captain Jonathan Toews discarded that sometime in the middle of the second period with a combination of minor penalties, visceral facial expressions and seemingly non-stop complaints to the officials. The really frightening thing is that the Hawks didn't play poorly; they controlled most of the first period, held the home team to a single goal until they pulled the keeper, only gave up 3 powerplays and out-shot Detroit 28-27. If a coach were to draw up a plan for how to win a road playoff game in the NHL it would look almost exactly like what Chicago accomplished last night. What they couldn't prepare for however, was the arrival of Jimmy Howard, the stone cold killer.

It is not easy to be Jimmy Howard. As the latest in a long line of unfairly maligned Red Wings goaltenders, Howard inherited a roster with Hall of Fame talent; and the weight of an entire city.  Detroit has championship bloodlines and a fanbase that's grown accustomed to seriously contending for the Cup every year. Regular season brilliance is irrelevant for a Red Wing; entire careers are defined in seven game sets in Hockeytown. Even success in the playoffs only grants a goalie passing acknowledgement here; it's hard to shine on a team full of superstars. When the Wings do not win however it's almost invariably attributed to the goaltender by fans, the media and sometimes even Red Wings management. There is no such thing as an average game in the playoffs for Jimmy Howard; he will be declared a hero or a goat on a nightly basis in the NHL's second season. It takes a psychologically strong individual to survive under this kind of pressure; Mike Veron and Dominik Hasek could hack it. Guys like Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace could not and quickly found themselves run out of town.

Nothing typifies Red Wing Nation's love/hate relationship with it's goalies however like the career of Howard's predecessor and mentor; Chris Osgood. "Ozzie" may have retired a hero to Wings fans but that was only after losing his starting job no less than 3 times and being waived outright by the Red Wings in the summer of 2001. Remarkably this was not the end for Osgood as a Red Wing; in 2005 the team resigned him after swapping goalies like baseball cards the 3 seasons prior.  It took a while but eventually Osgood outlasted a combustible Manny Legace and a rapidly breaking down Hasek to reclaim his starting job. He rewarded the Red Wings with back to back Cup finals; winning in 2008 and outplaying his counterpart in a heartbreaking 7 game loss to Pittsburgh in 2009. The fact that Osgood began and ended his "real"career on the losing side of 7 game playoff wars is the perfect metaphor for life as a Red Wings goaltender.

Howard's journey has been easier than Osgood's but not without it's hardships. Despite being drafted in 2003 it would be 6 long years before Howard would finally get a real shot at the starting job in Detroit. He began by splitting time with an increasingly ineffective and injured Chris Osgood before taking over for the team down the stretch. Howard played well enough to compile a 37-10-5 record and finish 2nd in voting for the 2010 Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. These accolades provided no shelter from the wrath of the Detroit faithful for him in the postseason however. Howard was brilliant at times in the first round but inconsistent play allowed a relentless Phoenix Coyotes team to stretch the series to 7 games. Many fans felt that Howard hard been largely outplayed by Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov in the series and their suspicions that Howard was not ready for prime time would be confirmed in the second round. Detroit lost in what felt like a 5 game sweep against the San Jose Sharks with the Wings blowing out game 4 by a score of 7-1 and otherwise losing every game by a single goal. The story of the series in Detroit instantly became that when the chips were down Evgeni Nabokov had come up with the big saves and Jimmy Howard had not. The name of the goaltender had changed but the song was still the same and Howard would have to wait an entire year to change the tune.

Things began to change for Jimmy Howard in the 2011 playoffs. Detroit swept Phoenix in the first round and entered their 2nd round series with San Jose fully rested this time. Howard had been solid, if unspectacular against the Coyotes but he was a revelation against San Jose. The Wings were badly outplayed in the Shark Tank but Howard stopped 79 of 83 shots in a pair of 2-1 losses. Both teams played awful defense in game 3, forcing Niemi to make 41 saves and Howard to respond with 38 of his own but once again the Wings lost despite the efforts of number 35. Miraculously the Wings began to the turn the series around; in no small part due to the stellar play of Howard. They clawed back 3 consecutive games to extend the series to it's maximum before eventually bowing out 3-2 back in San Jose. Though the Wings had been knocked out of the tournament only the truly delusional continued to blame Howard. Nobody was entirely sure yet, but after watching Jimmy come oh so close to imposing his will on the San Jose Sharks there was a lurking suspicion in Detroit that this might only be the beginning.

Unfortunately, just as Jimmy Howard was evolving into a merciless killer, father time began to extract his toll from the Red Wings. Defensive stalwarts Brian Rafalski and Nick Lidstrom retired in back to back off seasons along with former Selke trophy winning forward Chris Draper and infamous pest Tomas Holmstrom. Detroit made one last run in 2012 but after losing in 5 games to an extremely mediocre Nashville Predators team it became clear that wholesale changes were in order. The transformation of Detroit's roster this season has become one of the most covered story lines in this postseason so I won't repeat it here. It does bear mentioning however that despite all of this change, Howard has remained a virtual statistical metronome. His 2.13 GAA and .923 save percentage this year are virtually identical if not better than the numbers he produced backstopping veteran teams with multiple Hall of Fame defenders. While there's always a danger in reading too much into statistics Howard's play this year has also passed the eye test with flying colors. Playing behind the weakest Wing's d-man group I've seen in 15 years Howard has often been forced to come up with spectacular saves; often in rapid succession when his team fails to properly clear rebounds. If anyone outside of the Metro Detroit area noticed, they said nothing. The story headed into the playoffs was Detroit's desperate struggle to extend the playoff streak and the rise of Detroit's youngsters as the season progressed. If Jimmy Howard noticed, he said nothing.

When reporters ask teammates about Howard's contribution to the Red Wing's budding playoff run they speak glowingly of his calming influence, even keel and ability to shrug off goals to make that all important "next" stop. He has been called "the star of the team" by some of Detroit's biggest stars themselves and as the Anaheim series carried towards 7 games Howard proved himself worthy of those accolades.  Facing elimination in game 6 Howard held the Wings in the game with 34 big saves before absolutely suffocating the Ducks in the deciding match. By the time the whistle blew Howard had stopped 31 of 33 shots and openly left Anaheim shooters shaking their heads in disbelief as their season ran out onto the ice in front of them.  Finally the rest of the world was starting to accept what the Red Wings had been saying all season, the team will rise and fall in this year's playoffs on the back of Jimmy Howard. If he were of such a mind it might have been fair for Howard to say "I told you so" to a suddenly adoring media but as always Howard said little. Maybe he knew the Anaheim series was only an opening act; a minor homicide committed in preparation for the mass murder he was about to execute on the Chicago Blackhawks.

As I write this game 5 between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks is about to begin on the screen in front of me. While I won't go out and predict a Red Wings victory it's hard not to feel that Detroit will ultimately win this series. Part of that is the confidence that comes from a 3-1 series lead; simple odds state Detroit should advance at this point. Anyone who has watched the series however knows that the match record does not tell the whole story. Chicago has by and large outplayed Detroit and deserve to be in a better position than they are. What they haven't done however is solve the riddle of Jimmy Howard and now that they are staggered and gasping for air it's hard to envision a scenario where they eventually will. The Blackhawks are finished, hockey's equivalent to the Walking Dead. Jimmy Howard killed them all and my God has it been beautiful to watch folks.

Come on baby, don't fear the reaper.

- The Sportsball Chic

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