The Detroit Red Wings have been bouncing between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek for the better part of the last two years. Neither goaltender has managed to establish himself as the No. 1 option for more than a month or two, and it seems like when one cools off, the other one gets hot at just the right time.
That pattern has established itself yet again in 2016-17, with Howard rediscovering the form that allowed him to be Detroit’s top netminder for six seasons. Entering the campaign, it seemed likely that general manager Ken Holland would try to find a trade partner to take on Howard.
With the expansion draft looming this summer and the Red Wings in need of cap relief, that deal never materialized. And, truth be told, that has worked out in Detroit’s favor so far this season. Howard has been outstanding through 12 appearances, posting an even-strength save percentage of 94.31 (adjusted for score and venue) while going 5-5.
The 32-year-old was injured on Nov. 25 against the New Jersey Devils, however, which thrusts Mrazek into the bonafide starter role for at least a week or two. Losing Howard while he had been playing so well is a pretty big negative, and there’s no telling how long it’ll take for him to round back into form after being placed on the seven-day injured reserve over the weekend.
Groin injuries can be tricky for goalies, and head coach Jeff Blashill has stated that he expects Howard to be out for a minimum of one week. He’s already missed one contest due to the tweak–Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens–and Mrazek will start, at the very least, Detroit’s next three games.
And that’s the best-case scenario of Howard returning from IR the first day he is eligible. If Howard remains injured through early December, we could see Jared Coreau come off the bench for at least one start.
That’s because the Red Wings play three times in the first four days of December, including a back-to-back road stints against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 3 and the New York Islanders on Dec. 4. Dec. 3 will be the seventh day that Howard is listed on the injured reserve, and he might not be ready to go just yet.
After playing three games in four days to open the month, the Red Wings will have one day off before heading to Winnipeg to take on the Jets. That would mark the 10th day of Howard being on the shelf. Based on what we know about his injury — including the initial 10-to-15 day timeframe that was reported by Elliotte Friedman and the language Blashill has used — this seems like the earliest Howard would be able to return.
That creates an incredibly difficult stretch of five games; three on the road, and three coming against Eastern Conference teams. This will be a monster test for the 10-10-2 Red Wings, not just because of the Howard injury, but because of how banged up they are up and down the lineup.
Detroit can’t get through a game without losing a player it seems, and it lost Tyler Bertuzzi and Brendan Smith, replacements for options who were already hurt, over the weekend as well. The good news is that the Red Wings are still within shouting distance of a Wild Card spot, but teams contending for those two slots are packed like sardines. There’s very little room for error, and the standings could look quite different once Howard returns from his injury.
The shape of Detroit’s record very much rests in the hands of Mrazek, who Blashill recently characterized as a big-game goalie, telling Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News the following:
“I’d call him a ‘money’ goalie; he’s usually risen the opportunity and the moment. We need him to rise the moment and here’s a good window of opportunity for him to come in and play great.”
Howard was able to get into so many games because Mrazek has struggled for a majority of this season. He has been absolutely average at even strength, and his 92.23 save percentage (adjusted for score and venue) is good for 30th overall among goalies who have played at least 200 minutes this season.
Not particularly brutal, but not particularly effective either. The Red Wings need to win one or two of their upcoming games because of outstanding goaltending, and they simply can’t afford to lose because Mrazek has an off night. He appeared ready to rise to the task on Nov. 26 against Montreal, where he allowed one regulation goal before losing in overtime.
The first shot that beat Mrazek on the night was a deflection by Brendan Gallagher, and that could be pinned on Ryan Sproul, who was boxed out in front of his own net right as the puck got there. Then the overtime winner came on a two-on-one rush, with two Red Wings caught up ice as Alex Galchenyuk and Alexander Radulov barreled toward Mrazek.
He made 22 saves all told, several of the high-danger variety, and gave the Red Wings every chance to win. Mrazek can’t score the goals, but he has a tall task of preventing them with games against the Dallas Stars and Penguins coming down the pipe. Also on the docket is a highly-motivated Florida Panthers club that just fired their head coach and an Islanders team that is trying to get their season back on the rails before it’s too late.
Coming into the 2016-17 season, Mrazek had been pegged as the Red Wings’ go-to goalie. It’s time for him to earn those stripes now.
Stats appear courtesy of Corsica.Hockey and are accurate through games played on Nov. 27.