Why Jimmy Howard Is the Key to Detroit Red Wings' 2013-14 Playoff Hopes

Matt HutterAnalyst IJanuary 5, 2014

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 15: Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings follows the play against the Washington Capitals during an NHL game against the Washington Capitals at Joe Louis Arena on November 15, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. The Capitals defeated the Wings 4-3 in OT (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

To state that goaltending is important to a hockey team’s success is tantamount to proclaiming the wetness of water.

Like pitching in baseball or quarterbacking in football, the man tending goal for his hockey team is often the one who ultimately decides how successful his team becomes.

Still, for some teams, scoring their way out of trouble or rotating between goalies can be an alternative method for achieving success.

In the case of the Detroit Red Wings, Jimmy Howard’s success the rest of the season will likely mirror that of his team.

The Detroit Red Wings currently hold one of the two wild-card playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Their 19-14-10 record has earned the Red Wings 48 points, one better than their 2014 Winter Classic opponent Toronto Maple Leafs, with whom they’ll likely be battling for position in the Atlantic Division standings the rest of the season.

Should both teams hold their current trends steady, they’ll finish the season with roughly 96 points.

Considering that last season’s eighth seed in the East, the New York Islanders, secured the last playoff spot with 55 points in 48 games (this equates to 1.15 points per game, which would have yielded them 94 points in 82 games), the Red Wings are likely headed for a photo finish in the East, assuming similar point totals from last season.

It stands to reason that squeaking into the playoffs isn’t exactly what the team or its fans would prefer; as such, the Red Wings will need to improve their record in the second half of the season.

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 27: Johan Franzen #93 of the Detroit Red Wings goes to his knees after a collision late in the first period of the game against the Boston Bruins at Joe Louis Arena on November 27, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Ge
Leon Halip/Getty Images

While a second-half surge by Detroit sufficient to propel them into top-three status in the Atlantic isn’t out of the question, counting on that hardly seems prudent at this point.

Health in the Red Wings locker room is a fleeting thing this season, and this has certainly played a part in the team’s limited offensive production through 43 games. However, it appears the Red Wings have achieved some equilibrium when it comes to scoring, as secondary producers such as Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Joakim Andersson have emerged to chip in often enough to spell go-to offensive players such as Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Red Wings currently sit 14th in the league in goals for, averaging 2.63 per game. This is also exactly where they rank in goals against, averaging a slightly higher 2.65 per game. Looking at the shots for and against data, one finds a similar situation. Detroit is 12th in the league in shots for, averaging 30.1 and 15th in shots against, averaging 29 per game.

The Red Wings are essentially dead even when it comes to goals for and against as well as their average shot totals, leading one to two possible conclusions regarding how to improve their record moving forward: score more goals, or allow fewer.

The Red Wings are unlikely to raise their offensive production significantly unless and until they can ice a fully loaded offensive lineup for an extended period of time.

Go ahead; I’ll wait while you finish laughing.

That leads to the other conclusion; the Red Wings must allow fewer goals against.

Cutting down on the shots against could certainly help this effort; however, holding this season-long trend constant seems to be the safe bet at this point.

This all leads us to Howard.

Howard’s struggles this season have been well-documented and don’t need to be rehashed here.

However, looking at his larger-than-normal goals-against average of 2.65 (for the record, his goals-against average was 2.13 in each of the past two seasons) certainly seems appropriate insofar as it’s exactly the same as Detroit’s team average.

If the Red Wings wish to secure a playoff spot and in comfortable fashion, Howard will need to significantly improve his play in the second half of the season.

To put it another way, unless Howard returns to familiar form, the Red Wings’ playoff hopes are just that—hopes.

The Red Wings cannot count on scoring their way out of trouble and into wins, nor should they assume that their injury woes will suddenly and completely subside such that their goal production and shots against will rise and fall, respectively.

As Howard goes, so go the Detroit Red Wings.