I was watching a National Hockey League contest the other night, and a very odd thing occurred.
The Detroit Red Wings were in a really important game, played throughout at a hotly competitive pace … and the game was dominated, maybe even stolen, by the phenomenal play of a goalie.
A Red Wings goalie.
If you’re new to the game of hockey, or a casual fan of the sport, you might have a “yeah, so?” reaction to that statement. The Wings, after all, have been pretty much the most dominant team in the NHL since they came awake in 1997 and propelled a long-dormant franchise back to the top of the hockey world. The four Stanley Cups the team has captured over the past 14 years — and the team’s continuous standout play at the highest levels of NHL competition — mark the Red Wings as arguably the best overall organization of modern times, the club recognized as the standard bearer of excellence throughout the hockey world.
Why then the surprise … shock, nearly … at the idea of a Red Wings team led, even dominated at times, by their goalie’s play? Purists in most major sports will point to defense as the center, the rock, of successful team play. When legendary coach Scotty Bowman came to Detroit in the mid ’90s, he purposefully put the screws to the wide-open offense that Red Wings fans had enjoyed under preceding coaches. The scoring fireworks that Detroiters came to expect from the Red Wings teams led by Yzerman, Federov, Cicarelli et al. left the locals smiling much more often than not on their way out of the Joe Louis Arena night after night … at least up to — and not including — the months of April and May each year. The Wings were perpetual under-achievers in the Stanley Cup playoffs, despite their all-star lineups, until Bowman force-fed them a style of play that emphasized defensive responsibility at both ends of the ice. And despite early grousing and thinly-veiled threats to dismantle the team’s roster — remember when Steve Yzerman was ‘surely’ going to be peddled to Ottawa? — Bowman’s stressing of the new defensive approach — remember the “left wing lock?” — pushed the Red Wings over the final hurdle to Stanley Cup success.
And it was a sign of that coaching success, and of the strength of the personnel on those Red Wing rosters, that the club captured four Cups (should have been five; the outrage of 2009 still smolders in local hearts) despite mostly mediocre goalie play. Most successful hockey franchises have historically been built from the goal out — with the Red Wings’ original powerhouse of the 1950s having coalesced around phenom Terry Sawchuk; followed by the Montreal dynasty anchored by Jacques Plante. Contemporary Hall of Fame goaltenders like Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy led their clubs to multiple Stanley Cup wins. Yet the Wings have won four world titles — and stayed at or near the top of hockey’s hotly contested power rankings — with less than dominant goaltending. The lone exception was probably Dominik Hasek, a legendary NHL netminder who anchored the star-studded ’02 Red Wings to Stanley Cup glory. Still, Hasek was near the end of his brilliant career by that time, rarely called on to steal a game or control play. And there was a sense — at least around my house anyway — that my mother could have successfully guarded the net for the Wings that season. (She had a tremendous glove hand for a 77-year old woman.)
Nope, the story of the modern Red Wings has usually been that of a powerful squad that has won, and dominated, regardless of the play we have seen in goal. In fact, when the Wings have failed in modern times, it has seemed that they’ve faced a succession of surprisingly hot goaltenders, opponent after opponent, year after year. It is hard, maybe impossible, to think of a goalie that a Red Wing ‘minder has actually out-dueled to capture a key playoff round over the last two decades. And while the team had a tandem of successful goaltenders — and fun guys to boot — in Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood in the modern era … the stories of netminding brilliance, of ‘tenders “stealing” games and robbing opponents of playoff success, have always centered around opposing stoppers, ripping off the mighty Red Wings.
That’s why the game cited at the top of this piece seemed, in its way, to sound the possible reversal of this odd, and longtime, trend in modern Red Wings play. ‘Cause the Wings went into Pittsburgh Tuesday night to play the arch-rival Penguins in a showdown for early-season bragging rights around the league. And when the ice chips had cleared, it was an unlikely Red Wing who emerged the hero. Yeah, Pavel Datsyuk played like a man from another solar system, but it was Number 35 — Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard — who put the screws to the proud Penguins, and their dumbass fans. Who signaled the potential dominance of the latest Red Wings team; who engendered talk of “stealing” a game. When was the last time a Wings goalie had an impact like that?
Sure, it’s early. And of course young Howard — he’s 28, not that young, really, but at the best hockey age — has yet to anchor an aggressive Stanley Cup march in his two full seasons of play. So far, his numbers are solid. His goals-against number stands at a puny 1.80 per game. He currently leads the league in individual goalie wins. And if he proves to be the real deal, the kind of All-Star goalie we’ve been seeking around here for years, playing behind the kind of powerhouse club that the current Red Wings threaten to become … his emergence should send shudders around NHL front offices.
The last time it happened? The most recent time Detroiters could count on a Red Wings goalie with the potential to dominate on a nightly basis? The year was 1965, when a 22-year old kid named Roger Crozier — a leaping marionette on skates — back-stopped an aging Wings club to the Stanley Cup Finals. Though the powerful Canadiens won the Cup in six games, young Crozier — who goaltended in Motown for five more seasons — was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the ’64-’65 playoffs, the first player to win the award playing for a losing team.
If our new Number 35 makes his own way to playoff dominance and brilliance, we may see the visage of a whole new style of hockey success in our town. Perhaps a dominant Wings club, led by a dominant goalie, will write a page of local hockey history not seen — not even imagined around here — since, well, 1950. That was the year young Sawchuk, at the age of 21, brought home the first of four Stanley Cups as arguably the greatest goaltender in hockey history … putting together five straight seasons with averages of under 2.00 goals per game. Yeah … under. During the NHL’s “Golden Era.”
We won’t ask that of Howard, of course. A steal here and there, growing All-Star talk around the league, and stories of him “standing on his head” to secure more Red Wings victories … will do just fine.