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Red Wings' role reversal: Favorites-turned-underdogs have a hero in Jimmy Howard

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT — If you’re a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, you have seen this before.

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The Wings are leaning on their goaltending more than at any point in the past 25 years. (AP)

You have seen a team stacked with stars roll through the regular season, then run into an underdog that just, will, not, go, away. You have seen shot after shot disappear into the gear of some hot goalie in some early round in the playoffs, and you have felt the frustration and the fear that your shot at the Stanley Cup might disappear, too.

Except this time the team stacked with stars that rolled through the regular season is the Chicago Blackhawks. The underdog is the Wings. The hot goalie isn’t Jean-Sebastien Giguere or Miikka Kiprusoff or Dwayne Roloson ruining everything at the other end, but Jimmy Howard saving everything for Detroit.

Somehow it is the seventh-seeded Wings who hold the 3-1 lead in this second-round series, and it will be Chicago and the United Center that will be tense Saturday night for Game 5 with the ’Hawks, the 2010 Stanley Cup champions, the 2013 winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, facing a sudden, shocking elimination.

“It’s something new, and it’s different,” said Chris Osgood, who was in net for many of the Wings’ glory years and is now their goaltending development coach. “It’s not the same team that was so good in the regular season and was supposed to win and was always favored. Now there’s an underdog mentality, which I think has added a new element to it, which I think has added a lot of fun. It’s fun to watch.”

Oh, it was fun for Wings fans when their constellation of stars scored so many goals and piled up so many points for so many years. The roster read like a Hall of Fame ballot before the salary cap when owner Mike Ilitch funded a payroll that would be illegal today. There were so many big names, it’s impractical to mention them all. But the Wings won only four Cups – in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

[Also: Penguins knock Senators out of playoffs, advance to East final]

Why the word “only” when no other team has won more than two Cups since 1997? Isn’t that unfair?

Of course it’s unfair. But the Wings were so good that they expected – and were expected – to contend for the Cup every single year, and the downside was that over time people became spoiled. The early rounds of the playoffs became something to survive, not something to enjoy. Wins brought relief, not celebration. Frankly, there was a sense of entitlement, and the atmosphere at the Joe Louis Arena could be tight. Playoff losses weren’t just losses. There were often upsets and always disappointments.

It is untrue that the Wings never needed great goaltending or that their goaltenders never got credit. Mike Vernon won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 1997. Osgood (1998, 2008) and Dominik Hasek (2002) heard their names chanted at the Joe during their Cup runs. Hasek had six shutouts in the 2002 playoffs. Osgood had a .930 save percentage in 2008 and a .926 save percentage in 2009, when they went to Game 7 of the Cup final. “Even when we had Ozzie and Dominik Hasek in here, on occasion they had to steal some games,” said general manager Ken Holland.

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Jimmy Howard has frustrated the 'Hawks, just like lower-seeded teams used to do to the Wings. (AP)

But when the Wings won, they generally didn’t rely on their goaltending – and sometimes the perception was that they won in spite of it. “Ozzie never had to come in and steal a series for us,” said former Wings center Kris Draper, now the special assistant to the GM. “We knew Ozzie was going to be very good for us, but we were always the higher seed.” As Holland said: “It was a hard team to be a hero for.”

It was an easy team to be a goat for or a hero against. When the Wings lost, the goaltending got more attention, because the Wings’ wasn’t good enough – true or not – or because the opposition’s was otherworldly against all that firepower. Giguere. Kiprusoff. Roloson. They still haunt like ghosts. Draper can remember the Wings doing everything they could against the Edmonton Oilers in the first round in 2006, only to be stoned by Roloson time after time, until it was over. The Oilers, the eighth seed in the West, went on to the Cup final, not the Wings, who won the Presidents’ Trophy.

“That,” Draper said, “is frustration.”

That is what the Blackhawks are facing now. They have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, et cetera. They had the league’s second-best offense (3.10 goals per game) and best defense (2.02 goals against) during the regular season. They never lost three in a row. They were never shut out. Now they have lost three in a row. Now they are coming off a shutout loss – a 1-0 game that ended 2-0 because of an empty-netter.

[Watch: Which league has better playoffs, NHL or NBA?]

Howard has allowed only two goals in the past three games. The Blackhawks have had plenty of shots and excellent scoring chances. But if they come down the wing, he’s standing there slightly outside the paint, giving them no room to shoot. If they move the puck, he pushes off smoothly, moves with it and arrives set. He’s big, square, patient.

“He’s been a lot of times the difference for us,” said defenseman Niklas Kronwall. “He makes everything look easy. He’s in the zone, and we’re happy with him staying in it.”

The goaltending is not a surprise. Howard spent years in the minors, years learning from Osgood and Hasek. He was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2009-10, and he made the All-Star Game last season. Holland had him on his ballot for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender until he suffered a broken finger in the second half.

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Howard's stellar play pushed the Wings into the playoffs – and now they're pushing for more. (USA Today)

Osgood said Howard rivals the New York RangersHenrik Lundqvist more than any other goaltender in the league in terms of giving his team a chance to win every night. Only three goaltenders in the NHL started at least 42 games in the lockout-shortened 48 game season and posted save percentages .923 or better: Lundqvist (43, .926), the San Jose Sharks’ Antti Niemi (43, .924) and Howard (42, .923).

“The consistency is what impresses me the most, just every game, just the same guy, the same demeanor, the same calmness, which in turn leads to his team playing better and better as the season progresses,” Osgood said.

But now this is a team for which the goaltender can be a hero. As training camp opened, the Wings held a news conference to announce Henrik Zetterberg would take over for Nicklas Lidstrom as captain. This was going to be a transition season – fewer older stars, more young players. Holland harkened back to when the Wings would outshoot the opposition and lose to a hot goalie, and he said they might need steal a page from their opponents’ playbooks. The Wings hoped they would improve as the young players gained experience, but they weren’t sure they would have enough time because of the shortened schedule. Holland acknowledged that they might not make the playoffs.

For the first time in memory, expectations were low. For the first time in more than two decades, the Wings had to fight just to make it. But thanks to the play of Howard, the leadership of Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the rapid development of the rest of the team, they won their final four games and squeaked in. They upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round – 10 years after they were the second seed and lost to Giguere’s Ducks in the first round.

[More: KHL team pursues Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky]

“I sort of feel I’ve been an underdog all my life,” said Howard, who grew up in Ogdensburg, N.Y., on the U.S.-Canadian border. “Coming from a small town, people always said you’ll never have an opportunity. You’ll never have a chance to do this or that. For me, I sort of just relish it. I like playing that role.”

Detroit identifies with that. The Wings were once the Yankees of hockey, but as amazing as that era was, remember who some of the most popular players were on those teams: the Grind Line guys, Draper, Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby.

And though everyone wants to have high expectations and meet them, that doesn’t allow for surprises. There is a thrill in exceeding lower expectations.

People aren’t even bemoaning that the Wings aren’t what they used to be anymore. At least at the moment, they’re too caught up in what they are right now and what they might become in the future, whatever happens in these playoffs.

The tension is gone. The sense of entitlement has faded. The early rounds have become not something to survive, but something to enjoy. Wins are cause for celebration again, not just relief.

If you're a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, you haven't seen that in a long, long time.

“The Joe is rockin’ – like, stuff I haven’t heard in years,” Draper said. “I mean, how many times did you hear the ‘Jimmy Howard’ chant? … It’s, I guess, relishing the underdog role. Why wouldn’t Detroit rally around that? Detroit, people kind of kick it around. But I’ve been here 20 years now, and people are proud. Now you see the building and the atmosphere, and it’s awesome.”

“We were always an older team, older players, veteran, grizzled guys,” Osgood said. “I think the fans enjoyed that for a while, and now it’s changed. It’s younger guys coming up that the fans have grown to like and enjoy watching fly around the ice. It’s kind of the opposite end of the spectrum than it used to be, but it’s just as fun and just as enjoyable, if not a little more.”

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