Friday night in his team’s NCAA opener, Maine sophomore goaltender Jimmy Howard turned in his worst performance of the year.
From the goaltender who topped the nation with a goals against average barely above one and a save percentage over .950, came an ugly and abbreviated outing against the Harvard Crimson in which he surrendered four goals — tying a season high — on 33 shots and was pulled by coach Tim Whitehead after two periods.
All of the ugliness came on Howard’s 20th birthday: hell of a present, huh?
Doyle, Howard’s replacement, came in and blanked the Crimson, placing Maine in position to stage the thrilling comeback. In a postgame press conference filled with Black Bear elation at their come-from-behind 5-4 win over Harvard, the question was asked of Whitehead which goaltender would start against Wisconsin.
Howard or Doyle? Whitehead hedged, saying he’d have to consult “the tape.”
Most of the assembled press corps saw that non-answer as a reply of “Doyle.” At least one person did not.
“I had a hunch [I’d start] because I was playing so well down the stretch,” Howard said.
And that, it turned out, was exactly Whitehead’s reasoning.
“We knew either way we had a good [goalie] — either Frank or Jimmy,” he said.
“Our gut feeling was that Jimmy was playing so well down the stretch,” he explained. “We trusted our gut and went with Jimmy, and he bounced back very, very strong.”
When reporters still didn’t have too many questions for Howard, even after he limited the Badgers to one goal on 37 shots, Whitehead added:
“Doesn’t anyone have any questions for Jimmy? He was pretty good, wasn’t he?”
He certainly was, back in the form that made him the nation’s leading netminder, Howard made some especially strong saves in the second period when Wisconsin really took the play to the Black Bears, outshooting them in that period 14-7.
He was playing with self-assurance again, in part because Whitehead and assistant coach Grant Standbrook had decided that he should start in Maine’s most important game of the season.
“When you have your coaching staff and the 24 guys behind you it gives you so much confidence,” Howard said.
But Howard was never really lacking in that quality, even after getting pulled Friday.
“I slept like a baby last night,” he said. “I regrouped last night and calmed myself. I was zeroed in. I knew I had ‘it’ from the moment I got off the bus.”
And with Howard having “it,” Maine is well-prepared heading into the NCAA Frozen Four in Boston and a date against another top goaltender, whether he be Al Montoya or Matti Kaltiainen.