Hockey fans in any market are used to the unique attention given to goaltenders – they are either the piece that puts the team over the top (i.e. Carey Price) or the piece that nobody understands why they’re there (i.e. Ondrej Pavelec). When goalies sign long-term contracts at a sizable price, there’s an expectation of consistency and success attached with it that skaters don’t necessarily have to deal with. While skaters have multiple responsibilities to juggle throughout the course of a game, the only true responsibility a goalie has is to keep the puck out of their net.
Once the playoffs arrive, that single task gets put under an even more intense microscope, as one bad goal can lead to a game seven defeat and a summer of “what ifs.” There’s a reason why the Kings Jonathan Quick is widely-respected as one of the best netminders in the world: he’s almost unbeatable when the pressure reaches its peak. Teams will spend years searching for that clutch goaltender that stabilizes his team when things go awry. Just ask Flyers fans how their search has gone over the past couple of decades (with no offense to their current experiment, Steve Mason).
One team that looks primed for a good playoff run is a team that has used the same starting goaltender since the 2009-10 season despite having never made it beyond the second round with him between the pipes. This goalie is currently under contract for money similar to Roberto Luongo until the end of the 2019-20 season, when he’ll be 35-36 years-old (according to nhlnumbers.com).
This goalie is Jimmy Howard, and his team is the Detroit Red Wings.
Howard is currently in the midst of one of his better seasons as the starter for the Red Wings, sporting a 2.27 GAA and a .917 SV%. These numbers are both fairly close to his career average over the past six seasons – with his save percentage being dead on his career average. However, Howard’s regular season success is not questioned, it’s his playoff success that raises eyebrows throughout the state of Michigan and the rest of the NHL.
Howard currently has a 21-24 record in the playoffs with a 2.53 GAA and a .919 SV%. Not bad. Not elite. In comparison, Quick has a 45-31 record with a 2.22 GAA and a .923 SV%. There’s obviously something to be said here about the sample size, but the fact is that Quick has a greater sample because 32 of his wins have come from Stanley Cup victories. This comparison is best used to create a contrast between “The Elite” and wherever Howard falls.
I believe that this isn’t the best comparison to make when deciding whether the Wings are putting their faith in good hands. After all, the Red Wings aren’t the Kings. There is one other “Elite” team whose goalie is a good comparison to make, however.
Enter Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks – the Red Wings’ bitter rival.
Crawford and Howard actually share a lot of things: both are second round draft picks of their respective teams, both are currently 30 years old, both are on Original Six clubs that had them develop in the minors until they were in their mid-20’s, and their regular season stats are actually fairly similar (Crawford sports a 2.34 GAA and a .916 SV%).
The main similarity between these two, however, can be found while watching them play their position. They are both very good at making the first save. They more often than not can get a body part on the puck and force the rebound to a spot where their teammates can clear the garbage, and that’s just it, both of these goalies play a style that relies on their defense and their ability to protect them from their own rebounds. Obviously they are both able to swallow up rebounds, any goalie in this league should be able to, but on a regular basis these rebounds and how they are handled are what can make or break both of these goalies.
In the playoffs, Crawford has a 32-23 record along with a 2.21 GAA and a .920 SV%. Their save percentages, the stat goalies have the most control over, are a mere .001% off from each other. The GAA difference between Howard and Crawford can be chalked up to the quality of the Blackhawks over the past few years and the plateau of Detroit in that same time frame.
But this is 2015, and both of these teams are certainly able to do some damage come playoff time; Chicago is currently the favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup when all is said and done. Both goalies will rely on their teammates to keep the puck away from them, and bail them out when they dig themselves a hole. Both goalies will also be able to steal a few games here and there for their teams, or keep them in the close games that make the playoffs as exciting as they are.
The fact of the matter is Crawford is not an “Elite” goalie, and neither is Howard. They are both solid number-one netminders on very solid teams. Crawford doesn’t have to be “Elite” for the Blackhawks to win, and neither does Howard.
Can Jimmy Howard bring the Detroit Red Wings a Stanley Cup? Absolutely, but not on his own. Although, when you think about it, no goalie really can. After all, there’s no “I” in team, right?
Main Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images