It took Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard four full seasons to become a regular in the National Hockey League.
But Howard, who owns seven University of Maine goaltending records, is certainly making up for lost time this season.
The 25-year-old Howard, who is sharing the goaltending with 37-year old Chris Osgood, is 11-6-1 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage after making 30 saves in posting his first career shutout, 3-0, over Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
Howard has now allowed two goals or less in eight of his last 10 starts.
The Tampa Bay start was his 14th over the last 19 games. In his last five starts, he is 4-1 with a 1.20 GAA and a .958 save percentage.
“Things are going well,” said Howard. “I’m enjoying it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Howard has persevered and remained loyal to the franchise that drafted him in the second round (64th overall) in the 2003 draft. He had played in just nine NHL games in four years before this season.
When the Red Wings decided not to re-sign veteran goalkeeper Ty Conklin, who backed up Osgood last season, it was their way of challenging Howard to earn the back-up role.
He allowed five goals in his first start, a 5-3 loss to St. Louis in Sweden, and didn’t get another start for three weeks.
But Howard worked diligently in practice and used those three weeks to improve.
“The Red Wings have done a great job with me. They want me to succeed and those three weeks of practice were really beneficial,” said Howard. “It allowed me to get used to life in the NHL.
“My whole game has gotten better because I practice with these guys every single day. It’s kind of hard not to [improve]. You’re facing guys like [Nicklas] Lidstrom, [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk every day. They can all shoot the puck,” said Howard who focused on playing “outside the blue paint [crease]” and cov-ering his angles.
Howard received his break when Osgood was laid up with the flu. Howard played four consecutive games and posted three wins in those four games.
“It was unfortunate that [Osgood] got sick,” said Howard, who considers Osgood a close friend and mentor.
“He has been phenomenal to me,” said Howard. “Whenever I have a question for him, he never shies away from it. He always answers it truthfully.”
Osgood told Helene St. James in the Detroit Free Press that Howard’s development has been impressive.
“From when I first saw Howie when he was 20, it’s like night and day. He’s ready to be here. I tell him every day just keep getting better,” said Osgood.
In Snapshots, a Detroit Red Wings blog that ran a Detroit News piece by Dana Wakiji, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Howard is “stopping the puck and that’s what I like the most. He’s been big and he’s been square [to the shooters] and he’s given us an opportunity [to win]. He’s feeling confident about himself.”
Howard also said he has been working closely with goaltender coach Jim Bedard and that has been “awesome.
“I pick his brain,” said Howard.
Bedard said in the Macomb Daily (Mich.) that “nobody is surprised [by Howard’s strong play] in this room. They see him every day in practice. He shows up and competes and works hard every day. He took advantage of [Osgood] being ill, he got the ball and he ran with it.”
Howard never lost faith in himself.
“I kept telling myself to keep working hard and it will come,” said Howard, who reported to training camp 15 pounds lighter than he was during his playing days at Maine. “I’ve learned how to be a professional every single day. You can’t afford to have time to yourself. It’s a 365-days-a-week job.”
Howard, who married Hampden’s Rachel Miller on Aug. 1 and has a residence with Miller on Green Lake, said he has kept tabs on UMaine.
“I know they’re in third place in Hockey East right now, they have a five-game winning streak and they’re playing great,” he said.