- Scott Burnside, NHL
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With each passing day, it becomes crystal clear Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard isn't just the obvious candidate for rookie of the year, but he has also played himself into consideration for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender.
And while we're at it, if we're going to discuss Buffalo's Ryan Miller as a potential Hart Trophy nominee, then you have to throw Howard in the mix, as well. Quite simply, that's how good the 26-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., native has played and how crucial he has been in helping turn the Red Wings from meandering to menacing.
Pretty heady stuff for a guy who was so worried about his future as an NHL starter, he postponed his honeymoon last summer so he could concentrate on getting his game in shape.
"We didn't get married until August and that was a month before training camp, and I figured that probably wouldn't be the smartest time taking a week and a half or two weeks off to go to Maui or wherever we were going for it," Howard told ESPN.com after he turned aside 33 regulation and overtime shots and 10 of 11 shootout attempts in a 1-0 win over Nashville on Saturday night. "It just wasn't very logical from my standpoint trying to crack the NHL to take off for two weeks."
It's a decision that was well-accepted at home, especially now that Howard's name is consistently mentioned among the league's top first-year players.
"Yeah, I've definitely made up for it," he said with a laugh.
The Wings' win, which moved them one point behind Nashville in the middle of the Western Conference playoff bracket with 91 points, was Howard's 22nd straight start. The last time one Detroit netminder started that many consecutive games was 1991-92, when Tim Cheveldae started 29 in a row.
GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com the former college standout, who spent four years toiling for the Wings' AHL affiliate, has been the team's MVP thus far this season.
"He's not an overnight sensation," Holland said of Howard. "He's been training for this for seven years."
Saturday's tilt in Nashville was as good an indication of Howard's evolution as any. Or rather, another signpost on what has been a meteoric rise from giant question mark to potential hardware recipient.
The Predators were given credit for the first seven shots of the game and Howard calmly turned those aside. After a Detroit turnover late in the third period, Howard somehow managed to get in front of a wicked David Legwand shot that seemed destined to be the game winner.
"Yeah, it was just a pretty quick play," the amiable Howard said. "Actually, all three forwards touched the puck. It started off in the middle, got kicked out to the outside and I forgot who it was who made the pass to [Legwand], but I knew I didn't have enough time to get out to the top of my crease, so I knew he was going far side, so I just pushed across."
Howard, admittedly not so fond of the shootout, having won just three of 10 before Saturday, was needless to say terrific in Saturday's edition, including a remarkable diving save on J.P. Dumont.
The emergence of Howard as a top-flight netminder once again reaffirms the Red Wings just get it.
The Wings simply never rush players. But in Howard's case, it was more a case of whether the fruit would spoil on the vine. After Howard spent four years in the American Hockey League, the Wings had to decide if they were going to give him a chance, and Holland opted to cut loose netminder Ty Conklin, who had been so good working with Chris Osgood last season, and give Howard a chance to prove he had the goods to be an NHL netminder.
"We're in a cap world. We've got to move some 25-year-old players into our lineup," Holland said.
Early on, it looked like the pressures of stepping into a dynastic franchise like Detroit might be too much for Howard. He got lit up in his first start in Sweden and then didn't play much early in the season. When he did, there were some bumps. But when Osgood got the flu in November and missed a number of starts, Howard stepped in and began the process of not just taking over the starting job, but also resurrecting the injury-ravaged Wings' playoff chances.
At the time of this writing, Howard was fourth in the NHL in both save percentage (.926) and goals-against average (2.24). The shutout against the Predators marked Howard's 11th victory since the Olympic break.
When the Wings returned to action in March, the storyline was whether they would get healthy enough to sneak into the playoffs. Thanks to a nearly healthy roster and the continued nightly excellence by Howard, the Wings are 11-2-1 since the break, and coupled with another Calgary Flames implosion (a 5-0 loss in Boston on Saturday), sit eight points clear of ninth place, a virtual lock to reach the postseason for a 19th straight season.
"Like I was saying the other day, it's a lot easier when you're playing every single night because you get in a rhythm and everything," Howard said. "Even when things are a little off on a nightly basis, you think you can win the game, so I'm just in a nice little rhythm here and it's fun being here."
Now the storyline surrounding the Wings is whether Howard can become the first Red Wings netminder to capture rookie of the year honors since Roger Crozier in 1964-65, and how he will react to the pressures of being a playoff goalie in Detroit.
"He's a guy that's done a good job for us. He's gotten us to the point we're at. The test of time is what he's got to survive," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "There's been lots of goalies that have come into the league and some even won the rookie of the year and then you don't keep it going. That's up to him.
"So how mentally tough are you? How hard are you willing to train? How hard do you want to battle? How do you let water run off the duck's back kind of thing when it doesn't go good? To me, he's shown real good signs. I like the way he's played. He's given our team confidence. He looks like a real goalie to me, so I'm real comfortable. I think this is as good as [we've been in net] since I've been here."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Before the start of this season, Jimmy Howard was worried about his future as an NHL starter. Now? The Wings goalie is playing himself into the MVP debate and his team into the playoffs.