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Light at end of tunnel for Howard, Wings

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT — Late Saturday night, after leaving in the third period of a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) had an MRI exam at the Detroit Medical Center.

Howard lay in a coffin-like tube with a sore left shoulder. For about 45 minutes, he had nothing to do but listen to the machine's loud clack-clack-clacking and worry about what the results of the exam might reveal.

"I was just sitting there, thinking, 'Please don't be anything. Please don't be anything,' " Howard said.

It was nothing major, as it turned out, just a sprain. Howard skated Monday morning before the Wings faced the Chicago Blackhawks. He hopes to take shots Tuesday, return to the lineup soon and be fully prepared for the playoffs in a couple of weeks.

At the time, though, it was nothing short of scary for Howard, the Wings and Detroit fans. If healthy, the Wings – winners of four of the past 13 Stanley Cups, about to appear in the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season – remain top contenders.

Howard appreciates his opportunity even more now. Some might appreciate his importance even more now, too.

"He's our guy," Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg(notes) said. "He's our man, and we need him in the playoffs."

The concern on talk radio recently has been about Howard's statistics. He posted an impressive 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage last season, when he was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. Those numbers weren't as good in the playoffs – 2.75, .915 – when the Wings lost in the second round to the San Jose Sharks. Now they're even worse – 2.77, .908 – though he's tied for second in the league in wins with 34.

But the concern on the postgame show Saturday night shifted to Howard's health. Backup Chris Osgood(notes) is still nursing a surgically repaired groin, and Wings general manager Ken Holland's attempt to add insurance by signing Evgeni Nabokov(notes) in January fizzled when the New York Islanders claimed Nabokov on waivers (and Nabokov refused to report).

Without Howard, the Wings are down to Joey MacDonald(notes), who has spent most of his career in the American Hockey League, and Thomas McCollum(notes), whom the Wings called up from the East Coast Hockey League to back up Monday night against the 'Hawks.

Don't know what you got till it's gone? That's the way it is in Detroit, where people often think the Wings win because of their skill but lose because of their goaltenders.

"You know what you're getting," Howard said. "You listen to Oz and what he's been through over the years and the stories, and you just roll with it."

Osgood, 38, is in his second tour with the Wings. He has won three Cups with them, and he was the No. 1 guy on two of those runs – plus another run to Game 7 of the Cup final. But he didn't start receiving full credit for his accomplishments until he became the 10th NHL goaltender to reach 400 wins earlier this season.

"I've been here long enough that I know the way it works," Osgood said. "Every year, we don't get much attention [as a team] the first 40 games. Then, right around January, February, people start worrying about what we're doing, where we are in the standings. Just about when April hits, they worry about the goalie, how he's been playing and if he's going to be able to play good in the playoffs. It's the same thing every year."

It ran the gamut last week. First, Howard was yanked after allowing four goals on 15 shots in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, he played well in a duel with the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo(notes) on Wednesday night, only to lose 2-1. Finally, he was protecting a 2-1 lead against the Leafs on Saturday night when Joffrey Lupul(notes) fell on him and swiped in the puck, tying the game 2-2.

MacDonald had been doing the usual backup duty, charting faceoffs for coach Mike Babcock, handing him the data on little strips of paper every five minutes. He didn't realize Howard was hurt at first. But when he saw how Howard got up and skated off with the trainer, he didn't have to be told to start stretching.

"It's tough coming in, especially when your No. 1 gets hurt like that," MacDonald said. "It's going through your mind the whole time. The last 13 minutes, I was wondering what was wrong with him."

MacDonald stopped all seven shots he faced. He got the win over the Leafs, for whom he played six games last season as a call-up from the AHL's Toronto Marlies. Suddenly, he was the one being interviewed on national television in his native land, and he kept the white towel with the "Hockey Night in Canada" logo as a souvenir.

"It's a strange world," MacDonald said.

Great story. MacDonald is 31. He is living in a hotel room in downtown Detroit with little more than a mini-fridge. His wife and kids are home in Nova Scotia after a recent visit. He went down to the Wings' AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, as recently as last week only to turn right around and come back. He has waited for his chance to play in the NHL at this time of year. He has sacrificed for it.

The thing is, so has Howard. He turned 27 on Saturday. He spent four years in Grand Rapids until he became the starter in Detroit, coming up to play in only nine games in all that time.

"I would have liked to have been here a lot sooner, but it took me a little bit longer to develop and learn the pro schedule and learn how they bring it every single day," Howard said. "The guys in here bring it every single day. Now that I am here, it's just, I just want it bad."

How bad?

Howard signed a two-year, $4.5-million extension recently, right before Antti Niemi(notes) got four years, $15.2 million from the Sharks and Craig Anderson(notes) got four years, $12.75 million from the Ottawa Senators. He said he doesn't mind fitting into the Wings' salary structure because he's happy in Detroit. He has a chance to win.

In his minor-league days, he used to come up to practice in the playoffs. When he talks about what he saw when the Wings won the Cup in 2008, he sounds like a little kid dreaming out loud.

"Watching what the guys went through, and how hard they worked, and how much it all paid off, and how happy people were … just being around all the Cup parties and seeing how the fans and the players were interacting, and how much the fans really loved the guys, you know … it really drove home," Howard said. "I'd like to do the same thing."

Howard had 45 minutes to think about all of that as he lay in that MRI machine Saturday night. Luckily for him and his team, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.