With Wednesday's Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals just hours away, Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has another chance to proven himself as a go-to goaltender in the playoffs.
After a strong 2009-10 season in which he received consideration for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year, the 27-year-old regressed a bit this season with a 2.79 GAA, a .908 save percentage and two shutouts.
That's a bit of a drop from the 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage he had a year ago. It also shows that Howard fell into the trap common of Detroit goaltenders in the modern era—feeling comfortable for allowing three or four goals in a game due to the Red Wings' ability to outscore the opposition.
As all Detroit fans know, that's not going to cut it in the playoffs. While he outdueled Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov in last season's opening round, the 2.75 GAA he finished the playoffs with doesn't necessarily "wow" anybody.
And the Red Wings need some wow factor in net this year after seeing Dominik Hasek (1.85 GAA, .920 save percentage, six shutouts in the 2002 playoffs), Chris Osgood (1.55 GAA, .930 save percentage, three shutouts in 2008) and even Curtis Joseph (1.39 GAA, .939 save percentage, one shutout in 2004) shine for the Winged Wheel in previous years.
The case for Howard is that he typically responds to bad games and can elevate his game to match pressure situations. Criticized for his poor play in a 3-1 loss to Phoenix in Game 3 of last year's quarterfinals, Howard stopped 59 of the next 60 shots he faced—including a game-changing save on a Martin Hanzal breakaway.
But his performance at Joe Louis Arena this season has people scratching their heads. Detroit ended the regular season with 21 home wins, its fewest since 1996-97. Howard went 18-12 with a 2.88 GAA in those contests, hardly the stuff of legends.
If Detroit is going to beat Phoenix again, it will have to win a home game. Can Howard join the ranks of Red Wings elite? Or is he destined to become the next Tim Cheveldae?
We'll find out.