Column – Wings’ goaltending not a pressing issue

By Jake Thielen

The Red Wings will win a Stanley Cup with Jimmy Howard as their goaltender. There, I said it.

Yes, it is true that Howard’s numbers are down from last year. He ranks 32nd in the NHL with a 2.79 goals against average and 29th with a .908 save percentage.

But let’s not forget that last year Howard ranked in the top five in the NHL in both categories when he posted a 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage. Oh, and that was his first full season in the league.

This year, despite the down peripheral numbers, he also leads the NHL in wins with 34.

Much of the blame for Howard’s inconsistencies can be placed on the team surrounding him and the defense in particular.

The Red Wings currently only have one defenseman with a plus/minus rating over 10 — Brian Rafalski with a +12 rating. Rafalski has also missed significant time this season with injuries.

Future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom’s offensive numbers are up, but he has a -1 rating after finishing at +22 last year.

Jonathan Ericsson has been a disappointment this year, while Ruslan Salei has been solid but unremarkable.

In many cases this season, the team has simply looked tired or uninterested.

Take Monday’s game against Pittsburgh for example. For the first two periods of the game, the team was unmistakably awful. The Red Wings stood by flat-footed as the Penguins raced out to a 4-0 lead.

Howard was pulled after allowing four goals on 15 shots. However, it was only the second time in eight March starts that Howard gave up more than three goals, and the Wings earned points in six of those starts.

Despite struggling with injuries again, the Red Wings still rank second in the Western Conference at press time,  eight points behind Vancouver and three points ahead of San Jose. Howard has been a big part of that success.

More encouraging is the fact that Howard now has a year of playoff experience to build on.

Howard’s numbers in last year’s playoffs are very similar to the ones he has posted so far this season — a 2.75 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

Those numbers don’t seem remarkable, but consider the numbers of the two goaltenders who led their teams to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010.

Philadelphia’s Michael Leighton had a .916 save percentage, which was only slightly higher than Howard’s, and a 2.46 GAA.

Chicago’s Antti Niemi posted a 2.63 GAA and a .910 save percentage.

Going into last year’s playoffs, did anyone think either of those goalies could carry a team to a championship?

Similar concerns seem to exist this season among Red Wings fans who are used to the likes of Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood or Dominik Hasek leading the team to playoff glory.

But if Leighton and Niemi can lead their teams to the Finals, why can’t Howard?

It’s not like those two are setting the world on fire this season.

Niemi ranks in the middle of the pack in most goaltending categories this season, while Leighton currently plays for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate after being placed on waivers earlier in the season.

It’s reasonable to believe that Howard’s numbers will improve in the playoffs now that he knows what to expect.

If the team in front of him can stay healthy and play to its full potential, Howard is capable of leading the Red Wings to their 12th Stanley Cup.

After all, it’s not always about having a big-name goaltender (see Curtis Joseph). It’s more about having a goaltender, like Leighton, who can go on a hot streak at the right time.

Will Howard have to step up his game for the Red Wings to hoist the Stanley Cup in June? Absolutely, but so will the rest of the team.