Mike Babcock Is No Fool: Jimmy Howard the Man for Detroit Red Wings in Game Four

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IApril 20, 2010

DETROIT - APRIL 18: Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings watches the puck behind Radim Vrbata #17 of the Phoenix Coyotes during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 18, 2010 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It was, for my money, the gutsiest playoff decision I’d ever seen a coach make in Detroit. And I’ve been nosing around our teams since 1970.

Mike Babcock took conventional wisdom and the safe path and he chucked them into the Detroit River. For all I know he ripped out the pages of the coaching manual that says you don’t do it and he swallowed them whole.

“It” happened in 2008, almost two years ago to the day.

The Red Wings were in a dogfight of a first round soiree with the Nashville Predators. The Western Conference finalist Red Wings of the year previous had their hands completely full with Barry Trotz’s scrappy bunch from Tennessee.

The Red Wings had won the first two games in Detroit, but were swept in games three and four in Nashville, squaring the series at 2-2.

But Babcock had a pretty good idea why the Predators were able to tie the series.

“The puck is going into the net,” Babcock said. He didn’t add it, but he inferred it: Not only is it going in, it’s going in too frequently and too easily.

He didn’t have to name the culprit.

Dominik Hasek, Babcock’s Hall of Fame goaltender, was becoming far too gracious in the Red Wings net. The 43-year-old Hasek was waving and whiffing and his legs weren’t closing fast enough. Pucks were fluttering past him at an alarming rate. Even in the Red Wings’ wins in Detroit, there had been some goals allowed by Hasek that made people look cross-eyed at him.

The Red Wings came home to play the crucial Game Five.

Babcock had a surprise in store.

Hasek was out and Chris Osgood was in. Just like that—for the pivotal Game Five.

The manual says stick with the Hall of Famer, especially coming home. The safe path was alluring, too: Don’t make a decision that can’t, truly, be un-made.

Babcock looked at that stuff and raised his steely jaw at it with disdain.

The coach had seen enough of Hasek. Osgood was in.

Nothing much was riding on Babcock’s decision, just his team’s season, his reputation as a playoff-ready coach, and the potential for suicide of a city’s fanbase.

That’s all.

Babcock repeated his assertion when queried about the yanking of Hasek and the insertion of Osgood right smack dab in the middle of a first round series.

“The puck was going into the net.”

End of discussion.

Babcock didn’t care how Hasek, whose feelings could sometimes be ultra-sensitive, would take the news. He didn’t worry about the mess he’d have on his hands if Osgood stunk up the joint in Game Five.

He made the decision, it was final, and it was absolutely brilliant. And fearless.

Babcock did what truly great coaches are paid, and are expected, to do.

Osgood played marvelously and, despite giving up a tying goal late in regulation, he emerged the victor, thanks to a Johan Franzen goal in overtime. Osgood was named one of the three stars, and he skated onto the JLA ice to a thunderous ovation, raising his goal stick to the crowd.

It gave me goose bumps.

The Red Wings closed out the series in Game Six in Nashville. Osgood was again terrific.

Babcock’s guts were underlined in the next series, when Colorado Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville brought his team home for Game Three down 0-2 to the Red Wings—thanks largely to the ineffectiveness of his goalie’s play in Detroit.

It was a situation crying for a change—some sort of big move to shake things up and perhaps energize the Avs.

A goaltending change would have accomplished that quite nicely.

But Quenneville stuck with Jose Theodore, who was again awful in Game Three. Quenneville had to yank him he was so bad. The Red Wings blasted the Avs out in four straight games.

Quenneville coaches the Blackhawks now. We’ll see how well they do this postseason, won’t we?

The Red Wings, with Chris Osgood planted in goal for the rest of the playoffs, won the 2008 Stanley Cup.

Tonight the Red Wings are in a precarious situation. They will skate against the Phoenix Coyotes fighting for their playoff lives. The only thing worse than being down 2-1 to the Coyotes would be to trail them 3-1. Conventional wisdom again.

It’s another opportunity for the wrong-headed and the mealy-mouthed to show their true colors.

The rookie Jimmy Howard isn’t ready for all this playoff stuff, put in Osgood!

No one said every hockey fan was intelligent.

For all Chris Osgood has accomplished, inserting him into Game Four when he’s played but two games since Jan. 27 would be an egregious error on Babcock’s part. And it would do absolutely nothing for the confidence of the rookie Howard.

So Babcock isn’t having any of it. Mike Babcock is a smart man.

The goalie tonight will be Jimmy Howard, as it should be. How else are we going to find out how he bounces back from less-than-stellar performances in the playoffs?

Babcock might be fearless, but he isn’t a fool.

He’ll leave that to the fans with cell phones on the freeway.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.