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Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard stops the slide

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FIRST PERIOD

Now this is the Jimmy Howard(notes) the Detroit Red Wings want to see as they head down the stretch and into the playoffs. In his past two games, back-to-back victories over the Boston Bruins, he challenged shooters, controlled rebounds and allowed three goals on 51 shots.

In other words, he looked more like the goaltender who was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year last season than the one who had struggled with his consistency this season.

Or maybe we should say has struggled with his consistency. After all, Howard faces Steven Stamkos(notes), the league’s leading scorer, and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, just one of many coming tests of that consistency.

Howard leads the NHL with 28 wins, but his other numbers have been cause for concern. His goals against average is 2.82, 31st in the league and up from 2.26 last season. His save percentage is .906, 27th in the league and down from .924 last season.

“He was every bit as good this year as he was last year up until just about Christmas, and our team hasn’t been nearly as good defensively,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “There’s many nights when a puck will go in our net, we could have two goalies.”

Well, Holland tried to add another goalie at one point. He raised eyebrows when he signed veteran Evgeni Nabokov(notes) to a one-year contract on Jan. 20, only to lose him on re-entry waivers to the New York Islanders (to whom Nabokov has refused to report). He has insisted repeatedly that he did it only because it was a unique opportunity to add relatively cheap, solid insurance.

Nabokov, who has won almost 300 NHL regular-season games and 40 more in the playoffs, signed for $570,000 at a time when Howard had a bruised knee and backup Chris Osgood(notes) had hernia surgery. Osgood remains out of the lineup, although he has started skating.

The Wings have had a history of bringing in vets, resuscitating their careers and keeping them, and Howard, 26, is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. His salary is $716,667 this season. He will be looking for a raise. (Osgood’s contract also expires after the season.)

But Holland stressed he would like to re-sign Howard and hasn’t lost confidence in him. Holland likely won’t make a move of any kind before the Feb. 28 trade deadline unless Osgood suffers a setback or some other crisis arises.

About the time Howard started to struggle, the Wings started to run into injury problems – Pavel Datsyuk(notes), Dan Cleary, Brad Stuart(notes) and more. They started to play poorly defensively, partly because of the injuries, partly because they had been winning games with offense.

Holland, a former goaltender, said teams started scoring on backdoor plays, giving Howard no chance. So Howard started paying more attention to the back door. So pucks started slipping in on the short side.

But the Wings are healing. Datsyuk, Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom(notes) have returned. Stuart is supposed to return Thursday night against the Bolts. Valtteri Filppula(notes) should come back next week. Mike Modano(notes) has circled Feb. 26, when the Wings visit the Buffalo Sabres.

The defense was better against the Bruins, too. So, to no surprise, was Howard.

“I think as our team plays better defense and gives him a chance to face the shooter, his numbers will be better,” Holland said. “As we play better, it gives the goaltender a chance to be good.”

SECOND PERIOD

The Tomas Kaberle(notes) saga could be coming to an end.

TSN reported Thursday that the Toronto Maple Leafs are close to a deal with the Boston Bruins and it doesn’t hinge on a contract extension for Kaberle, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Leafs general manager Brian Burke told “NHL Live” on Thursday that no deal is done and he continues to talk to multiple teams. He said no team had asked the Leafs permission to speak to Kaberle’s agent about an extension, which could result in a higher return for the Leafs in a trade. He said he had not talked to Kaberle but had been dealing with Kaberle’s agent, Rick Curran, who declined to comment.

“My guess is, if we found something that was attractive and went back to the agent, Tomas might be receptive to that,” Burke said. “But that’s far from clear or far from done, and we’re just going to keep knocking on doors.”

A deal with the Bruins would make sense for all sides.

The Leafs need something in return for Kaberle instead of letting him leave for nothing as a free agent, even though they wouldn’t reacquire the first-round pick they gave the Bruins in the Phil Kessel(notes) deal.

Kaberle needs to move on. He loves Toronto and has never wanted to leave, and it always has been strange to see a player who so wants to be in a city seem to be so unwanted in that city – viewed as good enough to attract a strong return in a trade, but not good enough to help his current team. But his finesse isn’t a good fit for the truculent Leafs.

If he wants to play in Boston and lands a contract extension with the Bruins, whether now or later, then he’s set. But even if he doesn’t sign an extension, he should look better down the stretch with a better team, and he should have a chance to show what he can do in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. That should only help him when he hits the free-agent market.

The Bruins obviously need a puck-moving defenseman. Right now they have Mark Recchi(notes) manning the point on the power play opposite bomber Zdeno Chara(notes). Recchi is a savvy veteran, but he’s 43 with a skill set that belongs around the net, not out at the blue line. Kaberle could feed Chara on the power play the way he once fed Bryan McCabe(notes), when McCabe played for the Leafs and had his highest-scoring seasons. The Bruins’ strong system and goaltending should cover some of the defensive shortcomings that have been exposed during Kaberle’s tenure in Toronto.

If Burke can get some value for Kaberle, Burke will have even more assets he can use to build for the future and parlay for immediate help ahead of the Feb. 28 trade deadline. He already has made two deals: defenseman Francois Beauchemin(notes) to the Anaheim Ducks for winger Joffrey Lupul(notes), defense prospect Jake Gardiner and a conditional draft pick; and, winger Kris Versteeg(notes) to the Philadelphia Flyers for first- and third-round picks.

“I think there’s more activity coming,” Burke said. “I can almost promise it from our team.”

THIRD PERIOD

The Kaberle saga is nothing compared to the drama surrounding the Dallas Stars.

General manager Joe Nieuwendyk has been in constant communication all season with star center Brad Richards(notes), who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and has a no-movement clause in his contract. Nieuwendyk wants to re-sign Richards, and Richards might want to stay. But Nieuwendyk hasn’t been able to make an offer to Richards because of uncertain ownership, and the trade deadline is rapidly approaching.

A few weeks ago, it seemed Richards wasn’t going anywhere. The Stars had a solid lead in the Pacific Division. But now all bets are off. The Stars are in a 2-8-1 slump and have 68 points, same as everyone else from fourth through eighth in the Western Conference. Richards is out with an upper-body injury, hoping to return next week. And although there is hope on the ownership front, there are conflicting reports about where things stand. TSN reports a group has reached an agreement in price; the Dallas Morning News quotes a source saying that “just isn’t true” but reports there is optimism about the progress of the sale.

Richards obviously would be the top commodity on the trade or free-agent markets. The Bruins could have the ammo to grab him, holding the Leafs’ first-round pick in this year’s draft as well as their own. The Leafs and Los Angeles Kings would be interested. So would the New York Rangers, though they likely would prefer to sign Richards as a free agent instead of giving up pieces of their young core to acquire him.

Nieuwendyk must think of the long-term future of the franchise and not the short term. If he receives a big enough offer for Richards and Richards is willing to go, he might have to take it. But if he isn’t blown away and thinks he can convince Richards to stay, keeping him past Feb. 28 might be worth the risk. Richards could be a vital piece of the Stars’ long-term future, too.

OVERTIME

Did we underrate the rawness of rookie Tyler Seguin(notes)?

“I think so,” Recchi said. “I mean, he’s raw. He’s just a raw, raw talent, and he’s going to get polished.”

Seguin, the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft, looked like he was about to take a step forward in early January. He had produced two goals and five points in a six-game stretch. He was starting to battle more and be rewarded for it.

But then he went nine games without a point before scoring Feb. 1 at Carolina, the day after he turned 19. And then he was scratched for back-to-back games before scoring Feb. 13 at Detroit, not far from where he could have been playing junior hockey in Plymouth, Mich.

Recchi said Seguin was less mature as a rookie than the Pittsburgh PenguinsSidney Crosby(notes), the first overall pick in 2005; the Pens’ Jordan Staal(notes), the second overall pick in 2006; and, the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick in 2008. Recchi played with all three when they were rookies.

“But I’m watching him mature as it goes on here, and it’s great,” Recchi said. “He wants to learn and he wants to get better, and if he didn’t show those signs, then you’d worry. But there’s no worry in my eyes. I think he’s really starting to get it and starting to figure out what it’s like to be a pro and what it’s going to take to be a good player in this league.”

SHOOTOUT

• Now that the furor has subsided over the fight-filled games between the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens and the Penguins and New York Islanders, those battles seem more like temporary spikes in testosterone than evidence of a return to the 1970s. “I don’t think the league has lost control or is out of control,” Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference(notes) said.

• That said, it was entertaining to talk to Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton(notes) about fighting while a hat sat next to him in the dressing room. It was black with a gold fist on the front, the gold letters “KH” and the gold words “KNUCKLE HOCKEY.” Thornton said he was supporting a clothing business run by friends in Oshawa, Ont.

• In diplomatic fashion, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman responded to the statement Penguins owner Mario Lemieux released Sunday ripping the league for its response to the brawl with the Islanders. “I think we should all encourage him to get more involved with the league, because he has a lot to offer,” Yzerman said. Others were more colorful behind the scenes criticizing Lemieux’s lack of participation at league meetings.

• The day before the season, Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of Versteeg: “Well, if he’s not playing 20 minutes, I should be shot.” Well, Wilson shouldn’t be shot, but Versteeg went from playing 20 minutes in the beginning to as little as 12:59 before he got traded. The bottom line is he just wasn’t the top-six forward the Leafs envisioned. He’ll be better off as a third-liner on a Cup contender with the Flyers. That’s what he was when he won the Cup last year with the Chicago Blackhawks.

• Some Ottawa observers think it is unlikely the Senators will be able to unload pending unrestricted free agent Alexei Kovalev because he has been so bad this season. But Kovalev, who turns 38 on Feb. 24, has picked up his play recently because he wants a trade. He wants another contract and could give a contender some short-term scoring help.

• Kovalev is often linked to the Penguins. He spent five strong seasons with them earlier in his career, and they need help up front. But one scout suggested the Washington Capitals, thinking the right winger would work well with left winger Alex Ovechkin(notes).

• This isn’t a playoff race. This is a play-in round. “Playoffs have started,” Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “I mean, they started a while ago, but they’re really starting up now.”

@cotsonika tweet of the week: “NHL is NASCAR. From fourth through eighth in the West, everyone has 68 points. LA is ninth with 67. Cap, OTLs are restrictor plates.”