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RED WINGS FANS GET GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE IN MRAZEK

The injury that Detroit Red Wings netminder Jimmy Howard suffered over the weekend was tough to watch. Howard, who has a history with groin issues, left Saturday’s contest against the Buffalo Sabres on a stretcher. It’s unclear at this juncture just how much time Howard will miss, but we do know that he has a “slight groin tear.”

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland estimated that his No. 1 goalie would miss two-to-four weeks, but it’s important to note that Mr. Holland is neither a doctor or a former netminder. Goalies can’t play on groins unless they’re 100%. There’s no wiggle room there, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Detroit go more than a month without Howard.

While the injury is unfortunate—Howard was in the midst of the best season of his career and was recently named an NHL All-Star—it opens the proverbial door for Petr Mrazek to show the hockey world what he can do when given a string of starts. Some folks are calling for a trade, but that’s silly for a number of reasons. Instead, look for Detroit to roll out their 22-year-old netminder for the duration of Howard’s injury.

Mrazek has seen several cups of coffee at the NHL level, playing 20 games over the last three seasons. All those starts came because of short-term injuries. This will be the first chance that the former fifth-round draft pick will have to show his mettle as a go-to goalie in the best hockey league in the world.

He’s been an outstanding AHL player since the 2012-13 campaign, and has gone from alsoran to highly touted prospect over the last few years. At the age of 22, Mrazek is just entering his prime as a netminder, so this is an important chance for him to shine. There’s no reason to think that he won’t be able to do so either. He has a .921 save percentage as a Red Wing and has allowed two goals or less in five of his nine contests this season.

That’s a small sample size, but it matches the kind of output Mrazek had in the minors. His accumulative save percentage with the Grand Rapids Griffins is .916—not fantastic, but good enough to inspire confidence from Detroit’s coaching staff. Howard has received a lot of attention for his strong campaign, but don’t overlook the steady defense he’s been backstopping.

Only two teams in the NHL allow fewer shots per game on average than the Red Wings, and that will make the transition a bit easier for Mrazek. Moreover, Detroit’s penalty kill is outstanding and doesn’t allow many shots from in close on a nightly basis. The youngster sounds like he’s mentally prepared for the challenge he’s about to face too. He played in three consecutive games ahead of the Christmas break and didn’t look out place. He spoke to Ansar Khan of MLive.com about that very thing:

When I played three games in a row before Christmas I felt great. Always when you can play lots of games in a row, it helps you get confidence and you’re going get into the game.

Mrazek’s ability to settle in quickly is paramount for the Red Wings. They are third in the Atlantic Division, but the Florida Panthers are only four points back and have two games in hand. If Detroit is forced to battle for a Wild Card spot, it will have to do so against the likes of the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals.

A 5-4-1 stretch for the Red Wings has allowed the Panthers to make up ground and for the Tampa Bay Lightning to pad their division lead. Mrazek can’t step in for Howard and struggle for two or three games. That could be the differencebetween a Wild Card spot and a divisional spot, or worse, between playing postseason hockey and missing the dance entirely.

That’s an unthinkable scenario in Motown, where they haven’t missed the playoffs in 23 seasons.

Luckily, Mrazek is noted for being incredibly cool under pressure. He’s shown it during postseason games in the AHL and in tournaments like the World Junior Championships. The WJC is a long way away from the NHL, but mental fortitude doesn’t simply vanish as a netminder moves from one league to the next.

The tools are there for the Ostrava, Czechoslovakia native to thrive in the NHL. He’s been patiently waiting for his opportunity, and his chances won’t get much better than this. Detroit needs Mrazek to step up and Mrazek needed a chance to show what he can do as a starter.

 You’re up, kid.

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