Is Howard playoff ready?
April 4, 2010: Check out this feature on Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.
Steve Mason remembers the intensity. He remembers the looks in the faces of his teammates that indicated things just got much more serious.
When the Columbus Blue Jackets goalie made his playoff debut last spring as a rookie, it didn't take him long to realize the postseason was an entirely different world than the regular season he dominated on his way to a Calder Trophy.
"It was just the atmosphere, whether it was in the dressing room or the stands. Everything is hyped up quite a bit," Mason said. "Guys realize there's a lot more at stake."
A few more guys are about to realize the same thing. Last year, rookie goalies Mason, Anaheim's Jonas Hiller and Washington's Semyon Varlamov made their playoff debuts. This year, it's likely that three high-profile first-year goalies will be counted on to lead their team on a playoff run.
Detroit's Jimmy Howard, Boston's Tuukka Rask and Chicago's Antti Niemi look like they're on course for playoff debuts, with each hoping to become this year's version of Varlamov, who was fantastic after relieving Jose Theodore in the first round of last season's playoffs.
Mason, however, ran into a powerhouse Red Wings team that blew past the overmatched Blue Jackets. After a regular season in which he led the NHL with 10 shutouts, Mason finished 0-4 with a 4.27 goals-against average and .878 save percentage.
He shared this advice for Howard, Niemi and Rask.
"You have to let stuff roll off your back," Mason said. "You can't let the negatives affect you in the game and just keep playing. You can't give up until it's finally over."
Which first-year goalie has the best chance at eclipsing Varlamov's performance? Here's how we rank them.
1. Jimmy Howard, Red Wings
Here's how big Howard is getting in Detroit: During a postgame radio show following a recent Red Wings game, a debate broke out over who had a better rookie season — Howard or former Detroit Lions star and Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders. Leading the Red Wings on a playoff run would only raise Howard's stature in Hockeytown. He hopes his experience at the University of Maine and playing for Team USA pays off.
"I've played in big games," Howard said. "I played in the (NCAA) national championship game, triple overtime in the hockey finals, won a gold medal with the Under-18 team. I've played in big games, and you draw on everything growing up."
For Howard, his NHL playoff experience boils down to this: "You have to start somewhere," he said. "Why not now?"
Detroit's alternate plan: It's not a bad Plan B in Detroit. Experienced veteran Chris Osgood is waiting in the wings and, despite his regular-season struggles, he's capable of performing in the playoffs. Last season, he was 15-8 with a 2.01 goals-against average in the postseason.
2. Antti Niemi, Blackhawks
Entering Wednesday's game, Niemi had won four consecutive starts and is finding his groove just in time for the playoffs. In his first three games in April, Niemi was 3-0 with a 1.30 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
Two other stats to keep in mind: Against Detroit, a possible first-round opponent, he's 2-1 with a 1.56 GAA and .949 save percentage. Against the Kings, another possible matchup, he's 2-0 with a 0.98 GAA and .957 save percentage.
"He's a big, solid goalie," Jackets forward Rick Nash said. "Nothing really seemed to phase him." That's good, come playoff time.
Chicago's alternate plan: Once again, it looks like Cristobal Huet will start the playoffs on the bench. It has been another frustrating season for Huet, whose most recent victory came on March 5. In 16 career playoff games, Huet is 6-10 with a 2.73 goals-against.
3. Tuukka Rask, Bruins
There are two obstacles that stand in the way of Rask becoming the next Varlamov. One, his team hasn't clinched a playoff berth. Two, his team isn't that good.
But Rask might be the one reason Boston could pull off a first-round upset. If Boston faces the Devils, a low-scoring, defense-heavy series might make things interesting. In three games against the Devils this season, Rask stopped 73 of the 74 shots he faced.
"Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi — they're no slouches. They're really good goalies," Howard said. "I think it's going to be whoever can get hot and carry the team."
Boston's alternate plan: This might be the best backup goalie in the playoffs: the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. If Rask struggles in his postseason debut, Claude Julien shouldn't hesitate turning to Tim Thomas, who was 7-4 with a 1.85 GAA and .935 save percentage in the playoffs last season.
PHT: The Red Wings entered their series with the Blackhawks as massive underdogs. That's no longer the case after taking a 2-1 series lead Monday.
Video: NHL from NBC Sports
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