Detroit vs. Chicago: How Jimmy Howard Is Manhandling the Vaunted Blackhawks

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2013

When the Detroit Red Wings opened their Western Conference semifinal series against arguably their biggest rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, goalie Jimmy Howard played a terrible game.

The Hawks broke open a 1-1 tie with three third-period goals against Howard en route to a 4-1 win in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. They made the Red Wings look so bad that Chicago fans were eyeing a four-game sweep of the Wings.

But since that humiliating Game 1 defeat, it's Howard and the Red Wings who have been humiliating the Blackhawks.

Howard has held Chicago to just two goals since Game 1, including Thursday's 2-0 shutout. The Red Wings have won Games 2 through 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead and could potentially close out the series in Game 5 Saturday in Chicago.

Without question, Howard is the No. 1 reason why the Red Wings are 3-1 right now—and why Chicago counterpart Corey Crawford and the Blackhawks aren't.

Howard has done something no other goalie has been able to do against the Blackhawks this season: sheer and utter manhandling of what was supposed to be the best team in the league.

Well, at least until the second round of the playoffs, that is.

The better the Red Wings have looked, the worse the Blackhawks have looked, becoming a mere hollow shell of themselves since the opening faceoff in Game 2 of the current series.

Detroit's success and advancement potential in the second round have rested squarely on Howard's shoulders, and he's responded with a "They Ain't Heavy, They're My Brothers" kind of attitude.

The Red Wings haven't gone crazy with goals, leading the Hawks by a far-from-spectacular 10-6 scoring margin in the first four games. What's more, Chicago has far outshot Detroit by a 130 to 108 margin.

And yet, Howard has far outplayed Crawford, who has looked overwhelmed in the last three games.

In a complete role reversal of Game 1, Howard has shined and the Blackhawks are the ones who have played terribly, now mired in their first three-game losing streak of the season—unquestionably coming at the absolute worst time.

The Red Wings are now one win away from advancing to the Western Conference Final against either the Kings or Sharks, while the Blackhawks must rally like they haven't this year, forced to win three games if their once-magical season is to continue.

Now it's Howard who has been wearing the "magical" tag with his play in the net. It's almost as if the more the Blackhawks have thrown at him, the more Howard has thrived.

Howard and the sparkling defensive play of his teammates—particularly guys like defensemen Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall—are why the Red Wings are where they are.

And why the Blackhawks are unfortunately where they are.

Flash back two weeks ago. The Red Wings were down three games to two in their opening-round Western Conference quarterfinal series with the Anaheim Ducks. Detroit would bounce back to win the final two games in a series that was grueling and tiring, including four overtime contests.

While the Blackhawks likely would have fared better against the Ducks in Round 2, virtually every player to a man on the team, as well as their countless fans, wanted to see the Red Wings as the next opponent.

The main reason both Detroit and Chicago wanted to face each other is this is a historic series in more ways than one. Not only is Detroit on the verge of stopping a team that had one of the greatest regular-season runs in NHL annals, this series will also be the last in-conference postseason matchup between the two teams.

The Red Wings shift next season to the Eastern Conference, breaking a pairing with the rival Blackhawks that dates back 87 years. Now, the only way both teams will ever meet in the playoffs again is if they both advance to a future Stanley Cup Final.

Detroit and Chicago have been bitter rivals since Nov. 24, 1926, when Motown squared off against the Windy City for the first time.

And while Chicago holds an 8-7 lead in all-time playoff series triumphs, the Red Wings have won the last two postseason series (1995 and 2009). Put more simply, the Blackhawks haven't beaten the Red Wings in postseason play since 1993.

The way things are looking right now, that streak may be extended once again in Detroit's favor—and for the final time.

As the old saying goes, "Be careful for what you wish for." If they had known the kind of stellar series Howard would be having against them, the Blackhawks and their fans may be doing some serious second-guessing about not wanting the Ducks in the second round.

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