Maybe it was the call letting him know he was joining Team USA in Sochi next month or perhaps it was the calendar turning over on January 1. It may have simply been Jimmy Howard remembering who he was and what he was capable of.
Whatever the reason for Howard’s return to form in 2014, the fact that he is finally playing at the level appropriate to his skill set is undeniable.
Though Howard will still undoubtedly finish the 2013-14 as the worst of his NHL career, he has dramatically recovered his game in 2014. Howard is 3-2-1 over his last five starts, to go along with an impressive 1.83 goals-against average and a gaudy .950 save percentage.
Numbers aside, Howard seems to have his swagger back as well, as evidenced by his near dust-up with fellow Team USA goalie Jonathan Quick during an intermission between the game played between the Red Wings and Quick’s Los Angeles Kings squad.
Jimmy Howard gets rough with Kings, Olympic teammate Jonathan Quick takes exception (with video) http://t.co/hDNVUXTDuq— Ansar Khan (@AnsarKhanMLive) January 19, 2014
This is the Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings' fans have been missing all season.
However, is Howard’s resurgence enough to ensure that the Red Wings will find success often enough over their remaining 34 games to secure a 23rd-straight playoff appearance?
After all, even when Howard delivers a jaw-dropping performance, as he did against the New York Rangers, the margin for error is still so slim as to allow a deflected pass to determine the outcome of the game.
Added to this, the Red Wings are amongst a crowd of teams outside the playoff picture looking longingly at a Wild Card playoff spot.
Realistically, there are six teams in the Eastern Conference fighting to secure just two playoff spots with only four points representing the widest gap between them.
As the Red Wings are still facing life without forwards Johan Franzen (concussion), Darren Helm (shoulder/groin), Stephen Weiss (hernia), Pavel Datsyuk (lower body) and Daniel Alfredsson (back), they are not going to score their way into wins. They will have to continue to rely on goaltending to earn the points they so desperately need.
Additionally, Detroit’s 7-10-7 home record will be put to the test early and often as they will face two of the best teams in the NHL in the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks over the next three nights.
The possible four points those games offer the Red Wings are huge, but so is the unlikeliness they can earn them against such dominating opponents.
Detroit will need Howard to sustain his stellar play simply to stay in these games, let alone win them.
Until the Red Wings can return to a healthier version of themselves, they will need to continue to rely on Howard to even entertain the hope of winning night in and night out.
For his part, Howard appears willing and able to handle this kind of pressure based on his excellent play in net of late.
Still, given Detroit’s offensive challenges, position in the standings, injuries and uninspired home record, it may need much more than a superb Jimmy Howard to secure a playoff spot.