Jimmy Howard will be under intense scrutiny.
The former University of Maine All-American goaltender will make his NHL playoff debut tonight when his Detroit Red Wings, the fifth seed in the Western Conference, will visit the fourth-seeded Phoenix Coyotes to open their best-of-seven Stanley Cup series.
The only other former Black Bear involved in the playoffs is Colorado Avalanche defenseman Brett Clark.
After spending four years with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League, Howard earned the starting job with the Red Wings this season and has responded with an impressive season.
In fact, he is being mentioned as a candidate for the Calder Trophy given to the Rookie of the Year.
The 26-year-old Howard, who has a house on Dedham’s Green Lake, has posted a 37-15-10 record with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
He has the fifth-best GAA and fourth-best save percentage in the NHL.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Howard. “I’ve been dreaming my whole life about playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The moment is right and I’m going to have a lot of fun with it.”
Clark had three goals and 17 assists in 64 games on the blue line for the Colorado Avalanche. The 33-year-old Clark and his teammates are the eighth seed in the Western Conference and they begin their series against top seed San Jose tonight at 10:30.
Two other Bears who could get called up in case of injury are Detroit defenseman Doug Janik and Nashville center Ben Guite.
Janik, who is 30, has played in 13 games for the Red Wings this season and has a pair of assists. He has 6 & 31 in 66 games for Grand Rapids.
The 31-year-old Guite appeared in six games for the Nashville Predators without any points. He is playing for Milwaukee where he has 8 & 13 in 64 games.
Howard said the series with the Coyotes isn’t going to be an easy one.
“They have a solid group of forwards and they have some guys who can hammer it from the blue line,” said Howard.
He also noted that his counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov, has had an outstanding season.
“It’s going to be a difficult task,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
As for the fact he has no NHL playoff experience, he said “everyone has to start somewhere. Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy had to start somewhere.”
He said he won’t alter his approach to each game or his style of play.
“If you start changing things now, that’s when you get into trouble,” said Howard who has been pleased with his season.
“I didn’t expect to play 30 games and I wound up winning 35,” said Howard.
He said he won’t feel any additional stress and that’s because the Red Wings have been battling for a playoff spot since the NHL season returned after the Olympic break. They were outside of the top eight before getting hot.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey for over a month,” said Howard.
The Red Wings won 16 of their last 21 games and 10 of their last 12, including shoot-outs.
The Red Wings lost over 300 man-games to injury, second-most behind Edmonton, but have gotten healthy of late.
“Our confidence is high. We’ve played so well since the Olympic break. We got on a roll. We’ve gotten healthy and that’s huge during the playoffs,” said Howard who also noted that they have a “veteran presence.”
The Red Wings reached the Stanley Cup finals a year ago, losing to Pittsburgh 2-1 in Game Seven. Detroit won the Cup the previous year.
They also won it in 2002.
There are five other former Black Bears who saw NHL duty this season but whose teams didn’t make the playoffs.
Dustin Penner had a career-high 32 goals and 63 points in 82 games for Edmonton; Paul Kariya had a nice bounce-back year after missing most of last season due to hip surgeries. He had 18 & 25 in 75 games for St. Louis.
Defenseman Mike Lundin had 3 & 10 in 49 games for Tampa Bay and Teddy Purcell had 3 & 6 in 19 games for the Lightning after being traded from Los Angeles. He had 3 & 3 in 41 games for the Kings.
Greg Moore played in four games for the Columbus Blue Jackets without notching a point. He had 19 & 22 in 78 games between Bridgeport and Syracuse in the AHL.