In this March 11, 2010, file photo, Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) cover the gaol during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild in Detroit. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Carlos Osorio, File)
DETROIT - Goaltender Jimmy Howard has a shot to be the first Detroit Red Wings player in four-plus decades to win the Calder Trophy as the best rookie in the NHL.
Howard, though, is more interested in helping the storied franchise extend the longest streak in sports with a 19th straight trip to the post-season.
"First and foremost here, it's about getting into the playoffs," he said. "I'm not saying I wouldn't like to win it because I definitely would love to win the Calder, but it's secondary."
Howard is making quite a case for himself to be the Red Wings' first rookie of the year winner since Roger Crozier in 1965. He is ranked among the NHL's top 10 in victories, goals-against average (2.29) and save percentage (.924) after winning his 30th game on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues.
If Howard finishes in the top 10 in those categories, he will join a list of 10 rookies who have pulled off the feat since the 1982-83 season when save percentage became a league stat, according to STATS LLC. Four of the 10 won the Calder, including New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in 1994 and Ed Belfour in Chicago in 1991.
Howard has been a key reason Detroit will be in a position to pad its lead for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs Friday night - his 26th birthday - at home against Minnesota.
"He has helped keep us in the race," general manager Ken Holland said.
Detroit has surged from being out of the race to having a realistic shot to finish as high as fifth in the conference, winning six of its last seven and going on a 9-2-1 streak since the Olympic break.
Howard said it has simply been fun.
"We've been playing playoff hockey for a while here, having to get points every single night," Howard said.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock said Howard will be in net against the Wild, making that his 21st straight. The last Red Wings rookie goalie to start that many games in a row was Roy Edwards, when he had 23 straight during the 1967-68 season.
"When you're a kid, you're fresh and it's your first year in the league, you just want to play," Babcock said. "And when you're playing well, you're not thinking and you just want to get in the net."
Howard played in only one game for Detroit last season, four the previous year and four games during the 2005-06 season.
Holland acknowledged he didn't envision Howard having the year he's had, but points to the only rookie on the roster as the latest example of how an "overripe" prospect produces in the league.
"Seven years in the minors and college helped get him ready for this opportunity," said Holland, a former goalie. "He got a chance to learn his craft and that's what we always like to do when we can with our draft picks."
Howard, who is from Syracuse, N.Y., insists he's not surprised by his success. He expected to be prepared him for his pressure-packed job in Detroit after four years of seasoning in the minors and three seasons at the University of Maine.
"I've been working hard for this my whole life," Howard said. "I knew if I just put the time in, everything would work out. It wasn't tough at all to play for four years in Grand Rapids because I knew it was time for me to come up here, I was ready to make an impact."
Detroit drafted Howard in the second round of the 2003 NHL draft. Howard worked out kinks in the American Hockey League while veterans Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin shared time in the net last season in Detroit after Osgood and Dominik Hasek did the previous two years.
Osgood was frustrated when Howard emerged as the No. 1 goalie this season, but now embraces his role as a mentor just two years after winning his second Stanley Cup as a starter.
"I'm happy for Howie," said Osgood, who has 396 career victories. "Sure, I want to play. But I played with a lot of older guys that were good to me, so I owe it to myself to be a good teammate and mentor for him. Howie knows how to play, I just tell him, 'Just focus on stopping the puck.'
"All young goalies let their minds wander and sometimes I can tell when he's thinking about other things by his body language."
Howard has one season left on his three-year contract that will pay him US$800,000 next year. If he keeps improving, that will be quite a bargain.