By: Will Burchfield
It was hard not to worry when the Red Wings ruled Jimmy Howard out of Sunday’s game with a lower-body injury, even as coach Jeff Blashill said it shouldn’t be a long-term issue.
The veteran goalie has a troubling history of knee and groin injuries. If his latest setback is of a similar nature, the implications are daunting for the Red Wings.
Last season Howard missed two weeks with a pulled groin, something that first popped up in 2014, and then was shelved for about three months with a sprained MCL, something that first popped up in 2013. Without him, the Wings struggled mightily.
In games that Howard didn’t start, Detroit won 23 of 60. He finished the year with a .927 save percentage, while the duo of Petr Mrazek and Jared Coreau combined for a .898.
A similar trend has taken hold this year. In Mrazek’s nine starts, the Wings have three wins. He has a .885 save percentage to Howard’s .916.
If Detroit has any hope of making a playoff push in the second half, Howard will have to lead the way. The question is, can he?
Before getting injured in Friday’s win over the Panthers, a game in which Howard kicked out 38 of 40 shots, he had started seven straight, 11 of 12 and was on pace for a career-high 65 starts. He said earlier this season he prefers a heavy workload, just like any goalie, and Blashill is of the belief that starting netminders in the NHL have begun to get more rest than they need.
But it’s fair to wonder if the Wings rode Howard too hard in the first half. Entering this season, he hadn’t reached the 60-start threshold in seven years, and the team suddenly upped his workload dramatically.
His 33-year-old body may not have been up to the task.
Blashill said on Sunday night, heading into Detroit’s bye week, that he expects Howard to be available when the team resumes play on Saturday in Pittsburgh. But he also suggested a level of unknown in terms of the severity of Howard’s injury.
“We don’t anticipate it being a long-term thing at all. Sometimes on some minor or mild injuries there’s some stiffness and things like that, which we think will be fine in five days, but I’ll find out,” said Blashill.
Howard was injured in the second period of the win over the Panthers, but felt strong enough to finish the game. It wasn’t until the following day at the team’s morning skate that the team ruled him out of Sunday’s tilt versus Tampa Bay.
“He tried to skate this morning and couldn’t do everything he wanted to do to be comfortable to play,” Blashill said.
Dating back to the 2013-14 season, when his health issues began, Howard has now been sidelined eight separate times with some variation of a lower-body injury, typically to his groin or MCL. Sometimes his absences have been as short as a few days; more often they’ve cost him at least a couple weeks.
When the Wings return to the ice on Saturday in Pittsburgh, followed by a Sunday matinee in Chicago, it will be telling whether or not Howard joins them. If he does, the team can at least entertain the notion of a playoff push. If he doesn’t, that dream can be forgotten.