DETROIT — Jimmy Howard wasn’t handed a spot in the All-Star game.
He earned it.
The Detroit Red Wings goaltender played his way into the league’s showcase of stars later this month in Ottawa after his name wasn’t among the 18 players at his position on the ballot in November.
“With my numbers last year, I probably didn’t warrant to be on there,” said Howard, who starred at the University of Maine for three seasons (2002-05).
After giving up nearly three goals a game last season, Howard has bounced back.
He has an NHL-high 27 wins and ranks among league leaders by allowing fewer than two goals a game and stopping almost 93 percent of the shots that make it to him.
“I’m just playing with a lot of confidence,” he said.
It shows. And, the Red Wings couldn’t be happier to have the 27-year-old standout in net.
“Jimmy is really coming into his prime,” general manager Ken Holland said. “He’s a big part of us being in the hunt in the division and conference.”
Detroit, which led the tightly contested Western Conference with 61 points on Wednesday, plays on Thursday night at Phoenix needing to keep up with or hold off Central Division challengers in St. Louis, Chicago and Nashville.
“The Central is tight and it’s probably going to be like this until the final weekend,” Howard said. “We’ve got to get points every single night to try to separate ourselves. Everyone understands the urgency we need to play with.”
The Red Wings kept Howard off the free agent market last summer by signing him to a $4.5 million, two-year contract last season. They liked what they saw from a player nurtured in the minors until he was “over-ripe” as Holland likes his prospects to become before giving them a shot to play in the NHL.
Detroit drafted Howard in the second round of the 2003 draft after he starred for three seasons at Maine, and gave him four seasons to develop with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins.
“Of course it was frustrating when you’re in the American Hockey League and you see other guys getting called up that you think you’re just as good if not better and it can weigh on your mind,” Howard said. “I’m very thankful that they waited on me and let me progress at my own rate. It worked out for us.”
Since the 2008-09 season — his first full one in the NHL — he has won a league-high 101 games.
The native of Ogdensburg, N.Y., was runner-up for rookie after ranking in the top five in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Even though he won 37 games last season, he seemed to slip from spectacular to sometimes shaky with a 2.79 GAA and .908 save percentage.
Howard, though, has ended any doubt that he can excel in his pressure-packed job in Detroit.
“I think a goalie can hide behind a team like the Red Wings because they’re such a good team and play so well defensively,” Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews said. “But they’re getting the confidence that if they make a mistake, he’s going to step up.”
Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said Howard doesn’t get rattled anymore if he gives up a soft goal or has a poor game. The latest such example came earlier this week when Howard misplayed a puck behind the net and gave up a goal in a win against Chicago, but he didn’t let that affect him the rest of the game.
“Jimmy proves it is a process for a lot of guys to make it at this level,” Holland said. “Some players are able to jump on the scene at 19 or 20 and don’t miss a beat, but for most players it’s a process to get comfortable and to know what you can do in this league.
“To play in the All-Star game, you have to play your way onto the radar screen unless you’re the No. 1 overall pick and everyone knows you. And, that’s what Jimmy has done.”