That's just a simple fact of life for all goaltenders in the NHL, not just Howard—no one thinks you can go the distance until you actually do so. No one had Tim Thomas or Jonathan Quick penciled in as lights out money goaltenders until they played their best hockey in a Stanley Cup Final.
Now they are considered two of the best clutch netminders in recent memory. All it takes is that one run. That one sustained series of games and suddenly your name is engraved on the Cup alongside greats such as Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
Suddenly you're not just a great goaltender. You're a Cup-winning goaltender, and the gulf between those two distinctions is massive.
Even Chris Osgood, who is probably the most under-appreciated goalie in Red Wings history, finally received a bit of his due after winning his first Cup. Pundits and fans can say all they want about how good the team was in front of Ozzie, but the goalie still has to make all the right stops.
Howard has been the no-questions-asked starter in Detroit for four seasons now, and he's been considered a question mark by analysts heading into the playoffs every year. The former second-round draft pick doesn't have any qualms with fighting from underneath though.
"I sort of feel like I've been an underdog all my life," Howard told The Detroit News during the Conference Semifinals against the Chicago Blackhawks this year. He continued, "coming from a small town, people always said, 'You'll never have an opportunity. You'll never have a chance to do this or that.' For me, I sort of just relish it. I kinda like playing that role."
That's a good thing for Howard and his mental well-being, since he'll be considered a dark horse until he manages to bring a Cup to Detroit—something that could happen sooner rather than later.
Howard's body of work is becoming increasingly stellar. Niklas Kronwall told The Detroit News that "he's been the backbone of our team." High praise for a veteran that has played alongside some great goalies himself.
Since posting shaky numbers during the 2010-11 season, Howard has settled in nicely. He put up nearly identical GAAs over the last two seasons according to hockeydb.com, (2.12 and 2.13, respectfully) while posting a .920 save percentage in 2012 and a .923 in 2013.
Not Vezina-worthy numbers, but that's good enough to be considered one of the top-10 regular-season netminders in the NHL. Not that that matters much in the playoffs.
All that stands between Howard and a spot among the NHL's elite—yes, elite—is a Cup ring. A ring that he's proven capable of delivering.
2013 was a tumultuous season for the Red Wings. Hot off the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit was looking for someone to lead them, and not necessarily on the score sheet.
Instead, they were looking for a mental leader—a guy that would make teammates say "we're going to be OK because he's out there on the ice."
No. 5 used to give the Red Wings that kind of faith, and No. 35 took up that mantle the best that any mortal could hope to.
With the Red Wings scrapping and fighting for every point and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since several players on the team had been born, it was Howard that stepped up and became an impenetrable wall.
He continued his incredible level of play through two rounds of action in the playoffs as well. No one thought the Red Wings had much of a chance against the Pacific Division-winning Anaheim Ducks. Yet they managed to prevail in an intense seven-game series thanks in large part due to Howard's play.
Detroit went on to give the Chicago Blackhawks everything they could handle before dropping a 3-1 series lead. Some may view that as a lapse in Howard's game, but lets be honest: no one found a way to stop the 'Hawks in 2013.
Howard is a Stanley Cup-caliber goaltender. Without question.
He's shown an abundance of mental toughness and proven his ability to step up big when the games matter most. He won't turn 30 until this March, giving him plenty of time to finally take his run at the Cup, joining the list of great Red Wings goaltenders in the process.