For 40 minutes of Game 5, the best player on the ice for the Detroit Red Wings at the San Jose Sharks wasn't Datsyuk or Zetterberg or Lidstrom or any of the other prominent names on the back of a Winged Wheel jersey. It was Jimmy Howard, the guy between the pipes, the guy few pegged as Detroit's most important player as the teams reach Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal.
He made 15 saves in the first period of Game 5, and then another 13 in the second. Howard wasn't just keeping his team in the game — he was at times single-handedly keeping them alive in the playoffs, a human defibrillator in pads and a mask.
Finally, in the third period, the charge reached the Wings' heart, Detroit took over and took the game, closing the Sharks' series lead to 3-2. Via MLive.com, they credited Howard for the inspiration:
"[Sunday] was another example of the way he's been able to give us a chance," defenseman Brad Stuart said. "That's all you can ask for from a goalie. That's what you need this time of year, a guy that kind of holds you in there sometimes when you're not on top of your game as a team."
Howard has allowed three or fewer goals in eight of nine games. His playoff statistics (2.59 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) show much more consistency than he had in the regular season (2.79 GAA, .908 save percentage).
"Howie was big for us, especially the first two periods," Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He kept us in the game. I thought we rallied around him in the third period."
Will they rally around him one more time to force a Game 7?
Where Howard's been essential in this series is on the penalty kill; and hockey cliché mandates that we mention the goalie is always the most important player on the PK, despite the blocked and altered shots from the Wings' killers.
The Sharks scored four goals on the man advantage in their three victories; in their two losses, they've been shut out on the power play. Howard made eight saves in Game 5 on four times short-handed; he made three in Game 4 as the Sharks had two power plays.
It's a series of one-goal games. Another shutout on the power play, and the Sharks could be looking at Game 7. If that's the case, then it means Jimmy Howard bested them a third time and moved to 5-1 in elimination games.
The Red Wings are still in this series because they've refused to (a) give up or (b) get flustered by their deficit. Howard's been a symbol of that unflappable demeanor, even down 0-2 and getting ice in his face every shift. Remember SnowGate, when Howard said:
"They're just trying to get under my skin. I don't care. They can come in and pitchfork me all they want. They can do whatever they want. They're not going to take me off my game."
Four games later, they still haven't; and Red Wings fans are treating him like a hockey deity.