Commentary

Howie, Wings rally, but series not over

Updated: April 21, 2010, 12:06 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The chants were loud and passionate and resonated throughout Joe Louis Arena in the third period.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Howard
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesRed Wings goalie Jimmy Howard made 29 saves Tuesday to earn his first career playoff shutout.

"Jim-my, Jim-my, Jim-my, Jim-my …"

"That was pretty cool," Jimmy Howard, smiling ear to ear, said moments after his first career playoff shutout. "It was pretty surreal. It's great knowing the fans have my back."

Well, kind of. The man Red Wings fans were flooding message boards about with anxious doubts between Sunday's stinker and Tuesday's gem was again their hero. Such is playing goal in Hockeytown.

"Fans, they want us to do well," Howard said. "They expect a lot out of us; they want us to win. They're very passionate about the game, and when you come here, it's all you hear about, the Detroit Red Wings. When you go out there, not only are you representing the organization, you're representing the city."

Veteran backup Chris Osgood talked to his rookie protégé Monday, reassuring him after the Game 3 struggles. And Ozzie didn't doubt what would happen in Game 4.

"He definitely answered," said Osgood. "He has a great personality, the perfect personality to play. Detroit's a little different [on goalies]; he has a good head."

The 29-save effort lifted the Red Wings to a 3-0 victory, a must win, as Detroit tied its series with the Phoenix Coyotes at 2 with Game 5 set for Friday night in the desert. Howard's clutch performance bodes well for a Wings team that couldn't afford anything less than what the Calder Trophy candidate delivered in the regular season.

"The good players all got to survive at this time of year," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "I said to the guys before the game, 'We need to win tonight, there's no question about it. This is what you're in sport for, for games like this. You got to bring it when it counts.' That's what Howie has to do if he's going to be a top-flight goalie in the National Hockey League. We've seen lots of guys do well in the regular season and not do well at playoff time, and I'm real comfortable he'll be able to."

Howard's teammates were perplexed at the sudden negative attention the goalie was receiving heading into Game 4.

"He's a good goalie, and everybody in here always believed in him," said Henrik Zetterberg, who scored twice Tuesday. "Just because we had a poor game in Game 3, you know, we let in some goals, and all of a sudden it was Jimmy's fault. We played bad as a team. So it was nice tonight that he got the shutout. He deserved that. And that will keep all the people quiet."

Zetterberg didn't like seeing his goalie thrown under the bus after Game 3, but Howard himself wasn't impressed with his Sunday performance.

"It wasn't as easy as I thought to forget about Game 3," Howard said. "I was very upset at myself, I'm a competitive guy, I wanted to be out there, I want to contribute for the guys. Just coming into this game, I just told myself to be mentally tough and take it one shot at a time and five minutes at a time."

While Howard steadied the fort, the veteran Red Wings answered the competitive will of the Coyotes -- for our money, the hardest-working team in hockey. But on this night, Detroit pounded bodies and sent Coyotes players crumpling to the ice all night long. The final hit tally in the official game summary: Detroit 43, Phoenix 27.

"They came a lot harder at us," Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris said. "They came off the faceoffs on a 2-1-2 and made us move the puck quicker. And they finished checks. They played the game the way they had to play."

The physical display reminded us of the way the Wings responded in the second round against Anaheim last spring, when the Ducks jumped out to a 2-1 series lead and punished Detroit physically only to see the Wings eventually give some of that back in a thrilling and grueling seven-game set.

"I think the team has answered the challenge of playing a little bit more physical," Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "It always gets up to another level in the playoffs, and I think the whole team has really responded to that."

In particular, Detroit ended up pounding Anaheim's defensive corps late in that series, and that was evident again Tuesday night.

"Yeah, we talked a lot about that," Babcock said. "We really felt we needed to do a good job on their D. It's interesting, they skate real well and have a good puck-moving D. … They've been harder to get to, but I thought our guys got to some of them tonight, and I think that's real important. We have to continue to do that."

The other adjustment for Detroit on Tuesday was its display of patience. The Red Wings played a smarter game with the puck and waited for openings, not forcing the play as much and turning over the puck.

"I thought we had more team speed," Lidstrom said. "I didn't think the neutral zone was as much of an obstacle for us. I thought we dumped the puck in at the right times, went after it and kept skating. I thought that was the key instead of trying to stick handle through the neutral zone, where they can really clog it up."

So, the Wings received a confident performance from their goalie, matched Phoenix's physical commitment and found a way to break through the Coyotes' trap. Now, the Wings just have do it again two more times, and it won't be easy. The Coyotes have two of three at home and won't let up an inch. This smells like a seven-game series to us.

"I think our team has still got more to give here," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "We look forward to the challenge."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.