The Wings are trying to become the fourth team in NHL history to win a playoff series after dropping the first three games, and Howard, a second-year starter, has an opportunity to improve to 2-0 in Game 7s.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead, who was Howard’s collegiate coach for three years (2002-05), has seen the goalie’s development continue to reach new levels.
“We had a good hunch that he had a bright future in the NHL,” Whitehead said with a laugh, as he knew he was stating the obvious. “He was certainly one of the absolute best players I’ve ever coached in my whole life, just a fierce competitor, just loves to play the game, loves to compete, has a burning desire to win whatever competition he’s in. Whether it’s a game, of course, or a shooting drill after practice, he wants to win it. If it’s a little three-puck shooting competition, he wants to win it. He’s a great kid. He comes back to Maine every summer because he met his wife, Rachel, at the university. They both attended Maine, and his house is on Green Lake up in Maine. He trains at the Shawn Walsh Center every summer, so I’ve stayed quite close with him, text him off and on, congratulate him after great games and that type of thing. I’m very happy for Jimmy.”
Whitehead was hoping that next text would be Thursday night after the Wings-Sharks game. When reminiscing about Howard’s glory days at Maine, Whitehead brought up the Black Bears’ classic postseason run in 2004. Howard helped Maine stave off UMass in a 2-1 triple-overtime marathon in the Hockey East championship, beat Wisconsin 2-1 in the NCAA East Regional finals and knock out Boston College 2-1 in the Frozen Four, before falling 1-0 to Denver in the national championship at the Garden in Boston.
“He was in some classics,” Whitehead said. “That run, from the Hockey East championship game all the way through the national championship game really was a memorable season, and Jimmy certainly was tremendous for us the whole way.”
Howard left Maine after his junior season in 2004-05 and had to wait it out in the Detroit organization. He played for Grand Rapids of the AHL for four seasons before taking over for Chris Osgood in 2009-10. The Red Wings knocked out the Coyotes in a seven-game series in the first round before getting bounced by the Sharks in a five-game series in the Western Conference semifinals, which gives Howard a shot at redemption Thursday night.
The pressure has always been there for Howard, whether it came during his college hockey run, or for the U.S. junior national team, or as Detroit’s latest starting goalie, which is one of the most prominent jobs in all of sports after Osgood and Dominik Hasek owned the net for nearly two full decades.
Howard has a heck of a long way to go before he gets to that level, but he’s got a tremendous chance to take that next step Thursday night against the Sharks.
“I think Jimmy’s personality is the perfect fit for that type of pressure situation,” Whitehead said. ”I think some guys that aren’t as mentally tough as Jimmy might have trouble with it, but he’s such a fierce competitor. He’s always been. He’s always played in big games, and he always rises to the occasion. He’s one of those rare competitors that, the bigger the game, the more he focuses in. I think it’s really a perfect fit. He’s obviously still a young goalie, and he’s still going to have challenges along the way. But I firmly believe he’s just going to get better and better with age for Detroit.”