When Jimmy Howard awoke Wednesday morning, something was wrong.
“I wondered why my left ankle was killing me,” said Howard.
Howard knew the answer.
The former University of Maine All-American goaltender had just finished playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.
He was 37-15-10 during the regular season with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
He had spent the previous four years playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League.
His fifth-seeded Detroit Red Wings won a hard-fought seven-game series against No. 4 seed Phoenix before being dispatched in five games by top seed San Jose. All four losses to the Sharks were by one goal.
Howard, one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy given to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year, played every playoff minute for the Red Wings and posted a 5-7 record, a 2.75 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
When asked what he learned from playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, he responded “What didn’t I learn?
“I learned how tough it really is,” said Howard, who will return to his home on Green Lake in Dedham with his wife Rachel (Miller) next month. “You’re playing every other night at a highly competitive level. Your body is killing you. But you find a way to block it out. You have to be men-tally tough. I learned how mentally tough I can be.”
In assessing his performance, he said, “For the most part, I did a pretty good job. There were some games I wish I could have back, especially that third game and the third goal.”
Howard was referring to the goal by San Jose’s Logan Couture from a difficult angle that tied game three 3-3. San Jose went on to win 4-3 in overtime and take a 3-0 series lead.
“I used the same move I use every single time [in that situation]. It found a way to slip through the five-hole,” said the 26-year-old Howard.
Mark Leach, who has been a Red Wings scout for 16 years, said Howard had to learn what it took to be successful in pro hockey just like everyone else does.
“He had to learn how to train like a pro and eat like a pro,” said Leach.
In talking with Red Wings management, Leach said the concensus was “without Jimmy Howard this year, I don’t know where we would have been. He got his chance and he ran with it. He played great for us. He won 37 games as a rookie. And we were shorthanded [due to injuries] most of the year.”
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press that despite being disappointed about not advancing, “Some good things happened. Obviously, Jimmy Howard was a big story for us.”
Howard felt fatigue played a role in the team’s playoff loss to San Jose.
“I don’t want to make excuses but having to go to seven games with Phoenix took a toll on us,” said Howard, noting that if they had “taken care of business” at home in game six [5-2 loss], they would have been more rested when they began the series with the Sharks.
He said being a finalist for the Calder Trophy is a “great honor especially when you consider that I wasn’t even expected to play 30 games.
“To be a finalist shows how hard I worked this year,” he said.
He also said the Red Wings showed a lot of character making a second-half run that earned them the fifth seed and that they had “nothing to be ashamed of” with their playoff performance.
“We left everything out on the ice,” said Howard, who said there is plenty of room for improvement in his game..
“I have to build off this. I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable of playing in the NHL. I’ve got to work on playing the puck. That has been my Achilles heel,” he said. “I’m much more comfortable staying in the net and stopping the puck than wandering around making passes. But I have to work on that this summer. And I want to be more fundamentally sound. I want to work on my rebound control and stuff like that.”
Leach said Howard set a “great foundation” this season and has something to build on.
“He has to come back hungrier than ever. He has to keep his game going in the right direction. He has set himself up for a great future and a great career,” said Leach.