Phoenix Coyotes\' Shane Doan, right, celebrates a win over the San Jose Sharks with teammate Ilya Bryzgalov (30), of Russia, after the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, April 8, 2011, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 4-3, and with the win clinched a playoff spot. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
DETROIT - The Detroit Red Wings made a commitment to Jimmy Howard back in February, signing him to a contract extension.
Howard thinks having that out of the way is going to help him.
"It's not one of those things in the back of your mind," he said. "It frees you to just go out and play."
The Red Wings and Coyotes open their first-round playoff series Wednesday night in Detroit, a rematch of a showdown that went seven games a year ago—an early test for Howard, then a rookie.
"I feel calmer," Howard said. "Last year, I didn't really know what to expect. The intensity definitely picks up and a lot more guys crash the net."
Detroit's leading scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, will miss the series opener with an injured left knee. Could he miss the entire series?
"Tough to say," Zetterberg acknowledged Tuesday after not skating with his teammates.
When the rest of the Red Wings crowd the crease, they'll have a six-foot-three, 208-pound goaltender to deal with in the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov.
Phoenix forward Shane Doan says Bryzgalov is not just big.
"Bryz is probably the best player in the series," Doan said. "I think he's unbelievable and the most talented goalie in the league, as good as anybody. We're going to count on him huge, just as they are with Howard. They've got some pretty talented forwards, so we might have to count on Bryz a little more."
Bryzgalov has allowed just under 2 1/2 goals a game with a save percentage above 92. He said playing pressure-packed games late in the season prepared the Coyotes for this month.
"We were in the playoff mode pretty much the last two months, every game for us was very important," Bryzgalov said. "I think it's going to help us because we don't have to change our mindset. Every game for us was do or die and it's going to be the same in the playoffs."
The Russian is certainly not daunted about facing Detroit, which is aiming for its fifth Stanley Cup since 1997.
"I'm not looking at their roster and going, 'Oh my God, it's the Red Wings. How are we supposed to play them?'" Bryzgalov said. "You just take your chances and play, try to limit their chances, maybe make some big saves, some blocked shots. We were right there against them last year and we were good. We had some chances to win the series and unfortunately we didn't."
And part of that was the play of Howard, who got a US$4.5 million, two-year deal two months ago that keeps him off the free agent market.
Detroit drafted Howard in the second round of the 2003 draft after he starred for three seasons at Maine, and gave him time to develop with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins. The native of Ogdensburg, N.Y., was runner-up for rookie of the year last season after ranking in the top five in wins, goals-against average and save percentage.
Howard won 37 games this season with a 2.79 GAA and .908 save percentage, nothing stellar.
"I had a hiccup Christmas time and it wasn't pretty," Howard explained. "Pucks just weren't hitting me."
Pucks seem to bounce off Howard more than most goalies, giving teams second and third chances to score, but his teammates are certain he'll help them rebound from a relatively disappointing run that ended in the second round of the playoffs last year.
"We have a lot of confidence in Howie," defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He's been playing well for us."