Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL Preview 2009 [Print without images]

Saturday, October 3, 2009
Wings' goalie situation just got cloudier

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

STOCKHOLM -- We have seen the future of goaltending in the Motor City and, frankly, it looks more Edsel than Cadillac.

At least that's the short view after the St. Louis Blues stunned the Detroit Red Wings for the second night in a row here, spotting the Stanley Cup finalists an early two-goal lead before roaring back to win 5-3 in the finale of the NHL Premiere Games series.

On a night when much-heralded Detroit backup netminder Jimmy Howard hoped to start answering the many questions that have been asked about his ability to handle NHL play, he instead created even more skepticism about the Wings' goaltending situation.

Jimmy Howard
Jimmy Howard allowed five goals on 32 shots in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Blues.

After the Wings dominated the first half of the first period, scoring 31 seconds in and adding another 1:37 later, Howard allowed two soft goals 13 seconds apart in the second period that allowed the Blues to take a 4-3 lead en route to their second straight come-from-behind victory against the Wings.

The first, a Brad Boyes shot, somehow managed to sneak through Howard's body and trickle over the goal line, while the second, a Patrik Berglund slap shot from the left side, eluded him from well out.

"Third and fourth goals, they got through me and those can't happen. Not at this level," the 25-year-old Howard said as the Wings packed up for what will undoubtedly be a subdued overnight flight back to Detroit. "To be honest, I have no idea how the third one got through me.

"It hit me right here in the middle of my body. I don't know how it had enough force to trickle down through, and the fourth one, I just didn't get my pad flat on the ice."

First, a little perspective.

These were Games 1 and 2 of an 82-game season, less than 3 percent of the regular season. Drawing broad conclusions about what may or may not happen to a talented team like the Red Wings is a dangerous proposition. But Howard's shaky start couldn't have been any less troubling to the Wings, especially as it was juxtaposed against the performance of Howard's counterpart with the Blues, Ty Conklin.

The veteran Conklin was, of course, with the Wings last season and was credited with helping keep Detroit afloat when starter Chris Osgood suffered a sort of confidence crisis midway through the season.

He went 25-11-2 for the Wings, who advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the second straight year, losing to Pittsburgh in seven games. But at the end of the playoffs, the Wings had to make a difficult decision. In their heart of hearts, many within the team might have wished to keep Conklin. He is hard-working, pushes other goaltenders and is the consummate teammate. He also wins, as his 43 victories in a backup roll for Detroit and Pittsburgh, respectively, the past two seasons will attest.

Howard, however, had been toiling away in the AHL for four seasons and needed to get a shot or else the Wings risked losing him on waivers. At some point, the team had to find out whether their investment in the young netminder was going to pay off, so they let Conklin go. He signed with St. Louis on the first day of free agency.

On Saturday, Conklin allowed those two goals in the first 2:08 -- he admitted to being a "little bit wound up" -- but then was solid from that point on.

And here's the moment that must have made the Wings feel more than a little uneasy about the path on which they've embarked. With the Wings leading 3-2 in the latter stages of the second period, Henrik Zetterberg set up Kirk Maltby at the side of the net with a typically brilliant Zetterberg feed, but Conklin denied him. Moments later, Boyes' shot squeaked through Howard.

"Anybody that says it's not a little bit more meaningful the first time you play that old team and you get a win is lying because it is," Conklin told ESPN.com. "You want to play well."

As for the domino effect of his fine save on Maltby leading to good things for the Blues, Conklin literally shrugged his shoulders.

"Yeah, well, it's hockey. You have to make a save sometime sort of thing," he said.

And there's the rub, no?

The talented Wings don't give up a lot of shots -- Howard faced 32 on Saturday, while Osgood saw 23 the night before -- so they don't generally need a Roberto Luongo kind of netminder. That's not how they're built. But when you give up nine goals over two nights on 53 shots, that's not going to get it done.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock said he understood why Howard would feel as though he should have made the stops on those two crucial goals. But he also didn't lay the blame for this loss at his young goalie's pads.

"That's just the way it goes sometimes. But I also think that you've got a kid in the net," Babcock said. "I think sometimes your team can win the game for him without the goaltender.

"I thought St. Louis played really well in both games. I thought they played hard for 60 minutes in both games and I thought they were the better team in both games. But I thought they did a better job in that position [goaltender] in both games," the coach added. "The bottom line is we got to get better. We just got beat two nights in a row, and any way you look at it, they're two up and we're two down."

Before the season started, GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com the Wings were hoping to use the veteran Osgood in about 50 games, leaving 32 or so for Howard. "Those are games that can make or break your season," Holland said then.

No season gets broken by Oct. 4, but it's nonetheless disheartening to suddenly be trailing the Blues by four points and the Chicago Blackhawks by three in the Central Division and you haven't even played a game on the right side of the Atlantic Ocean yet. So, here's where the ripple effect starts. Like all ripples, it starts small and you wonder how big it will get.

First, Howard is going to play again and likely in the not-too-distant future.

"I mean, my confidence really hasn't changed," he said. "I know I can do the job out there, I just have to be better. I wasn't horrible, but you know, I wasn't great out there either. Like I said, the difference of the game was the third and fourth goal and I need to make those saves.

"I can't force it. That's when stuff will just go completely wrong and go south really fast. I know I have to be better and just get back to Detroit now and continue to train hard."

And maybe that's what will happen and these European games will soon become an afterthought. If not, do the Wings end up over-taxing Osgood because they lack confidence in Howard? Does it force Holland to try to find another Ty Conklin?

That's when the ripples from this first little European stone will get bigger very quickly.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.