He will be the most important guy on the ice tonight. Goalkeepers usually are, especially in the playoffs.

But Jimmy Howard was busy Thursday, identifying reality for his team.

"Well, it's the same thing as it was at the end of the year, you know?" he said, after he and the Red Wings landed at Metropolitan Airport after a 3-2 overtime loss Wednesday to the Ducks.

"We've got to win. We just have to go into tomorrow night really focused."

The loss Wednesday means the Wings are down, 3-2, in the series and must win out. To continue in the playoffs, they have got to win Games 6 and 7.

To do that, Howard is required to play his best.

And, plainly, his performance against the Ducks is mixed. After a stellar stretch in the playoffs in which he allowed three or fewer goals in 18 of his previous 19 games, he allowed four in both Games 2 and 3.

He was down to two on Monday when the Red Wings won, and three on Wednesday when they lost. He could be faulted on none of the three goals, and his season has been like that: If he holds opponents to two, the Wings win. If it is up to three, they often lose.

Four? Forget about it.
He got 'em here

But Howard got them into the playoffs, regardless. At the end, they needed to win four in a row, he got the job done, and he was a cool, calm and collected leader along the way — just as he is in this series when the Ducks drive him in the crease continuously, and Corey Perry, especially, hopes to get him off his game.

He has been their most valuable player this season. At age 29, he also is among their leaders and an heir to a long line of playoff goalies for the Red Wings.

Norm Smith gave up an average of two goals per game and won Stanley Cups in 1936 and 1937.

John Mowers won it in 1943, shutting out the Maple Leafs, in Toronto, in Games 3 and 4 of a four-game sweep.

Harry Lumley starred for the Wings, and coach Jack Adams traded him after his only Stanley Cup for them in 1950, in order to begin playing the young Terry Sawchuk regularly.

Sawchuk won cups in 1952, 1954 and 1955. But, after a while, Adams got rid of him, too.

In 1956, the great Glenn Hall was in and Sawchuk was gone from a booming Motor City.

That 1949-56 goalkeeper carousel in Detroit was likely the beginning of dissatisfaction with goalies, as the town divided at times into Lumley, Sawchuk and Hall camps. Since those days, some fans of the Red Wings are taught as children that the goalie situation for their team is never quite settled and almost always worthy of vigorous complaint.

Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek took care of the next four Stanley Cups in the line of 11, with Osgood winning two and his name on it three times.

Osgood was loved, except by those who detested him; respected, except by those who reviled him.

Some think him worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Others wish he would mount a comeback, just so the Wings can trade him.

And now, it is the self-possessed, good-natured guy from a small town in upstate New York, who played at the University of Maine and toiled in Grand Rapids until Red Wings' fans largely forgot he was there.