Can a backup goaltender, of all things, decide whether a hockey team reaches the promised land or not?

We’re about to find out.

The Detroit Red Wings pull the curtain back tonight for the first time in front of their home crowd in the 2009-10 campaign. And their fans will see something that they haven’t seen in 20 years: an 0-2 Red Wings team.

But the Wings are 0-0 in North America!

The much ballyhooed trip to Sweden proved to be more distraction than it was worth, the Red Wings blowing two-goal leads in both games to the inferior (but improving) St. Louis Blues.

Let’s look at that word, inferior.

First there’s the inferior backup goaltender, Jimmy Howard—in comparison to last year’s No. 2 man, Ty Conklin. But the concern in Detroit is that Howard is not only inferior to Ty Conklin, but also to Ty Cobb, when it comes to being a goalie.

Chris Osgood, the No. 1 netminder, wasn’t very good in Sweden. Howard, though, was downright awful.

But it was just one game, right?

Yes and no.

It was one game this season, yes, but for a guy who’s been taking his sweet time developing, Howard was expected—check that, required—to play a lot better coming out of the gate.

There’s worry in Detroit about the goaltending—surprise, surprise—but for the first time that I can recall (and if you know me, that’s a lot of recalling), the worry isn’t so much about the starter, but about the guy sitting on the bench most nights.

Jimmy Howard might be the only backup goalie in the NHL who’s on the hot seat. And the guy doesn’t even have anyone playing behind him!

It’s the opposite of the old NFL adage about quarterback controversies: the best quarterback is the one not playing.

In Detroit, not only is the best goalie the one who is playing, the second-best goalie is the one not even on the team right now.

Coach Mike Babcock said in training camp that he expects 25 victories from his backup goalie this season. Good luck with that, Michael.

Do you see 25 wins somewhere in and around Jimmy Howard’s body? Heck, do you even see 25 games?

These are the Red Wings. They don’t put up with some of the nonsense that teams in other NHL cities are forced to put up with. And one of those things is putting a backup goalie in net and watching the game with one eye open and the other one closed.

If Howard doesn’t right himself, and quick, he won’t be on the team. It’s as simple as that. The Red Wings don’t owe him anything. He’s not some bonus baby in which the team has a lot of Mike Ilitch’s pizza dough invested. They’ve been patient with Howard. It’s all on him now.

Howard has the additional misfortune of following Conklin’s act, which was superb last season, pulling the Red Wings through the Chris Osgood Ordeal—during that 82-game thing that we call, in Detroit, “preparing for the playoffs.”

I have some good news for the Howard Haters today. Don’t worry so much. Babcock, GM Ken Holland et al aren’t going to be very patient anymore. Prediction: Howard isn’t the backup come Christmas. Just a hunch. Could be time for young Daniel Larsson, or someone from outside the organization.

Now back to that word inferior once more.

I called the Blues inferior, but the other biggie is wondering how many other teams we can say that about, in comparison to the mighty Red Wings.

It’s trendy and chic to say that the list of teams you can pencil in beneath the Red Wings in terms of overall strength is dwindling. Perhaps it is. Not so sure, though.

John Buccigross of ESPN.com, in his Western Conference preview, has the Red Wings fourth, behind Calgary, Chicago, and San Jose. He’s another who’s fallen prey to the trend-setters.

The Blackhawks, of course, are a legitimate threat to the Red Wings’ supremacy in the Central (I wish they called it the Norris again) Division. But Buccigross makes a fantastic leap of faith in picking them second in the conference.

Here’s Buccigross on the Blackhawks’ Achilles heel—starting goalie Cristobal Huet:

“So far, not good. Last season, he was outplayed and lost his starting job. His career had a nice, steady arc before last season’s expectations. So it is reasonable to believe he can return to form. But can you picture him as a Stanley Cup-winning goalie? If you can, then this team has as good a chance as any.”

Wow. That’s a big supposition to make, in calling a team the second best in its conference.

The good news: no backup goalie worries in Chicago. The bad news: that’s because they’re all focused on the starter.

More about the Blackhawks: Buccigross also likes the Marian Hossa signing—as well he should. But Hossa is out until Lord knows when thanks to off-season surgery. Will it take him time to get revved up? Then again, he might be in peak condition come playoff time. It’s not like he couldn’t use a (ahem) strong playoff, you know?

About the Flames, supposedly No. 1 in the West in Buccigross’s four eyes, the offensive power dazzles him, as does the acquisition of free agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from Florida.

Ahh, but there’s this about the Flames and their goaltending situation, i.e. Mikka Kiprusoff:

“Kiprusoff’s goals-against average has gone up every year he has been in Calgary. The past four seasons, his games played looks like this: 74-74-76-76. That is insane. He turns 33 later this month. He can’t sniff that amount of games and expect to finish the season with a kick. Kiprusoff is obviously a grinder. He takes every goal to heart. Having him play that amount of games wears down his brain, and anyone who believes otherwise doesn’t understand goalies or people like Kiprusoff. He is not a John Deere tractor on the Sutter farm. He is a man, he’s 33 and he needs to be handled better this season or he will have another .884 playoff save percentage like this past spring.”

Does that sound like an argument for why the Flames are the best in the West? Sounds more like the opposite, to me.

So Buccigross—and I’m sorry to pick on just him—is making two huge leaps of faith about other teams’ goaltending situations in placing them ahead of the Red Wings in the so-called “power rankings.”

But that’s OK. It’ll be refreshing to watch the Red Wings play a regular season in which they’re not on the tips of everyone’s tongues in the “who’s winning the Stanley Cup?” discussions.

By the way, the Red Wings should still be in those discussions, heavily. They’re still pretty damn good, despite their losses in free agency. They still have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen and Daniel Cleary and Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall. And more.

I think you’re sniffing the goalpost paint if you pick the Red Wings anything less than best in the Central and second in the conference, but what do I know? I picked the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup in 2008, and I picked them again in 2009. Boy, did I miss that one by a mile, eh?

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