Ten years ago, Jimmy Howard took center stage at TD Garden in Boston.
In what is considered one of the best finals in Hockey East history, Howard made 63 saves as the University of Maine beat Massachusetts 2-1 in triple overtime.
He led that Black Bears team to a berth in the NCAA title game, also in Boston, only to come up short in a 1-0 loss to Denver.
On Friday night, Howard returns to TD Garden and will be in net when the Detroit Red Wings open their NHL playoff series against the Boston Bruins.
Boston is one of Howard’s favorite venues and he would like nothing better than to lead Detroit to a series win over Boston, which posted the league’s best regular-season record. The best-of-seven Eastern Conference matchup marks the first time the two Original Six franchises have met in the postseason since 1957.
Former Black Bear Gustav Nyquist is the Red Wings’ leading goal scorer with 28.
The eighth-seeded Red Wings were the only team to beat the Bruins three times this season, as they went 3-1 against Boston.
“That all goes out the window now,” said Howard, who resides on Green Lake in Dedham in the offseason with wife Rachel (Miller) and son James Howard IV, 2½.
Howard readily admits that Boston “has a special place in my heart.
“I love playing in Boston. I’ve played so many times there [including] winning the Hockey East championship and playing in the national championship game. It is always a fun place to play,” said the former All-American, who set the NCAA Division I record for goals-against average (1.19) and save percentage (.956) in 2004.
Howard said the Bruins will be a difficult challenge.
“They’ve got big guys who can skate and they have four lines who can do damage out there,” said Howard. “They get in your face and if you turn the puck over, they’ll put it in the net.”
He added that the Bruins “like to funnel pucks to the net” and crash the net front.
“They have big bodies so they’re able to do that [successfully],” said Howard, who owns Maine career records for shutouts (15 in three seasons), GAA (1.84) and save percentage (.931).
Howard said the Red Wings are going to have to manage the puck well.
“We’re going to have to be extremely smart with the puck. We’ve got to get pucks in deep [the offensive zone] and get them out [of our zone]. And we’ve got to cut people off,” said Howard.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work to beat them. They are such a good, deep team,” he added.
Howard has had an injury-marred season but he is healthy now. Two injuries to the same knee sidelined him, but he was still chosen for the U.S. Olympic team, although he didn’t play as he was behind Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller.
Howard posted four wins in his last five starts with a 2.01 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
The Red Wings overcame a rash of injuries to key personnel to make the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year.
“I feel pretty good. I got on a little bit of a run at the end of the season,” said Howard, who noted that Detroit has been playing playoff-type games since before the Olympics just to earn a playoff spot.
“We had to constantly grind it out just to stay in the playoff picture. We’ve gotten some [injured] guys back healthy and have been able to make a run,” said Howard. “It’s good to get guys back at the right time.”
The 30-year-old native of Ogdensburg, N.Y., finished the season with a 21-19-11 record, a 2.66 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
He has a career playoff record of 20-22 to go with a 2.57 GAA and a .918 save percentage.
Nyquist goes into the series tied for third on the team in scoring even though he played in just 57 games because he started the season in the American Hockey League with Grand Rapids.
He has 20 assists to go with his 28 goals and leads the team in game-winning goals (6).