Detroit Red Wings: Can Jimmy Howard Stay Healthy for the Playoff Push?

Rob KirkCorrespondent IIMarch 20, 2012

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 29:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings and Team Chara poses prior to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place on January 29, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Red Wings have fallen on hard times as a string of injuries combined with inconsistent play have seen our Hockeytown heroes post a dismal 2-6-1 record in March. Included in the list of the afflicted have been leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk and Vezina candidate Jimmy Howard.

The key to the Red Wings' first-half success was undeniably Howard, whose stats placed him among the NHL elite, and Detroit in command of the Western Conference.

Howard suffered a broken finger in the middle of the Wings' NHL-record 23-game home winning streak and was replaced admirably by Grand Rapids' finest, Joey MacDonald. He returned for five games before tweaking his groin in a loss to the Blackhawks.

At a glance, the pessimist would wonder if the Red Wings' star goaltender is suddenly made of adobe. The two injuries in less than a month might raise a red flag for some, but Howard has never had a history of injuries.

Howard returned to action Friday night for a shaky 5-2 loss in Los Angeles, but was solid in an overtime loss at San Jose. Detroit will try to right itself after a tailspin that has dropped them into fifth place in conference, eight points behind division and conference leader St. Louis.

For the Red Wings to move up in the conference, they will lean on Howard heavily, as the offense has tapered off recently. In fact, the Red Wings power play was an abysmal zero for March at 0-for-29 until Monday night.

With star contributors Nicklas Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi and Datsyuk, as well as role players like Danny Cleary, Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl and now Darren Helm, either out or hurting, the Wings are limping down the stretch.

With seven of the next 10 games at the Joe, Detroit can expect to see some players rejoin the lineup soon. With the regular season winding down, though, seven of those 10 games feature opponents looking for their own momentum going into the playoffs.

When are missing three of the team's six starting defensemen, Howard might have a slightly heavier workload. Coach Mike Babcock specifically noted defensive errors in losses to Anaheim and LA. "I think what happens when you have injuries is it's great because you get to evaluate what you have, and you get to see who can do it by themselves and who's a support player," Babcock told the Detroit News.

While Babcock's optimism may keep the casual Wings fan from a full panic, it's certainly frustrating to look at today's team versus the one that was scorching the rest of the NHL earlier this year.

While the Blues may be out of reach, barring an epic Toronto-esque collapse, Detroit can at least aim for a No. 4 seed as it will secure a first-round home ice advantage against a vastly improved Nashville team. The Preds could also be welcoming back self-exiled star Alexander Radulov as the KHL season has come to an end. The Wings have performed well historically against Nashville in the playoffs and lead the season series 3-2.

When they are healthy, the Red Wings match up favorably against anyone on paper. However, playoff games aren't played on paper, they are played in the big HD box on my wall, and nobody is crying if Detroit aren't at full strength.

One thing is for certain: when the playoffs begin, the Red Wings' feisty netminder will be ready. With back-to-back second-round playoff exits, Howard wants to prove to Wings fans and the world that he can take Hockeytown to the promised land.