DETROIT -- The cameras, microphones and growing media covering the Detroit Red Wings' surprising playoff run filled the space around Jimmy Howard’s dressing room stall minutes after Thursday's game ended.
They worked to establish position while waiting for Howard to emerge and explain exactly how he became the first goalie all season to shut out the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, like he did so effectively in Detroit’s 2-0 win over Chicago in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals -- a win that gave the Red Wings a stunning 3-1 series lead.
The cameras moved closer to the center of the Red Wings' dressing room when it became clear that’s where he would conduct his interview.
Howard came out and patiently answered question after question as the cameras recorded.
Then, surprisingly, the crowd parted.
Right down the middle, a path among the media opened up and Gordie Howe stepped forward.
A reporter’s question was stopped midsentence, and Howard leaned forward to shake the hand of the greatest Red Wing who ever lived.
Howard managed to greet the 85-year-old Howe, who was congratulating him on his outstanding game against the Blackhawks.
“Mr. Hockey,” Howard whispered. “How are you? Nice to see you.”
Then he smiled, answered a few more questions, and reflected on what just happened.
“It’s great to have that history around here, and have guys that are still fully invested and fully interested in us,” Howard said. “For us, it is about going out there and carrying on the tradition.”
And what a job Howard is doing right now to build on the tradition started by those before him in Detroit. He has the Red Wings one win away from knocking out a Blackhawks team that absolutely dominated the regular season and established themselves as the clear-cut Stanley Cup favorites. One win away from the Western Conference finals.
With his perfect performance (28 saves), Howard is threatening to wipe out Chicago’s year, and turn a season of incredible promise to one of immense disappointment.
“We’re just happy he’s playing so well right now,” Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said of his goalie. “We know we haven’t accomplished anything more than set up for a good run here. We have to stick with what we’re doing.”
With revamped lines that featured Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa along with a second line that reunited Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks came out flying in Game 4. They played with the kind of energy and urgency you’d expect from a heavy favorite that has been awakened suddenly by a No. 7 seed.
In the first period, Chicago had odd-man rushes and scoring chances every few minutes, with the Red Wings looking like nothing more than spectators.
Three minutes into the game, Toews and Kane skated in on a 2-on-1, with Howard stopping Toews’ shot. A couple of minutes later, Toews set up Kane for a wide-open shot that Howard turned away.
Ten minutes later, it was Sharp on a breakaway denied by the Red Wings goalie. At some point, while he carried them, Howard’s teammates decided to join their goalie in the upset effort.
“I thought it got better as we went on, still Howie kept coming up with big saves giving us a chance to win,” Kronwall said. “That was the difference tonight.”
For most of this postseason, Howard has been an afterthought among the mentions of outstanding playoff goalies such as New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and reigning champion Jonathan Quick. With his performance Thursday night, Howard’s postseason now stacks up with any of them. There’s not a goalie remaining playing better; he is now 7-4-1 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in the playoffs.
Detroit has seen extended playoff runs by its hockey team in the spring, but really nothing quite like this. The Wings are used to being the heavy favorites who run up against the hot goalie, not the other way around.
And these fans are clearly embracing this team’s role as the underdog. The highest levels of Joe Louis Arena actually shook when Daniel Cleary’s empty-net goal at 19:21 of the third period sealed the win.
There’s a bond forming between a city that’s starting to believe in its hockey team -- one that isn’t nearly as loaded with the talent as some in the past -- and the group of players making it happen.
Especially the goalie.
Detroit isn’t a town that’s known for treating its netminders particularly well. And yet, on the day of the Red Wings' biggest game of the season, the local sports talk radio station was debating which of its current star athletes fans trusted more for a big-time performance: Howard or Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
Howard got overwhelming support.
The Red Wings are the pesky underdog. The goalie is the local folk hero. It’s all backward this spring in Detroit.
Howard laughed when he was asked if he’s winning over this city.
“That’s a good question, you’re going to have to ask the fans that,” Howard said. “For me, it’s about going out and performing -- not only for these guys in the dressing room, but the guys like [GM] Kenny [Holland] and [goalie coach] Jim Bedard who had a lot of faith in me to give me the ball and run with it four years ago and stick with me. It’s about proving myself to the guys in here in the organization."
And on this night, proving it to guys who came long before him in this organization. A blessing from Mr. Hockey -- if that doesn’t win over the last remaining Howard doubters, nothing will.
“I don’t know if you can ask much more from Howie than what he’s done for us since he’s got here,” Kronwall said. “If you’re not appreciating what he’s doing right now, I don’t know if you’re a true fan, to be honest with you. That’s how good he’s been. He’s been the backbone of our team.”