The opening is framed by red-painted steel pipes that extend four feet vertically from the ice surface and are set six feet apart, connected by a horizontal cross bar. It’s the most important 24 square feet in sports.

On average, that 24 square-foot area is targeted anywhere from 25 to 35 times per game, per side, in the National Hockey League. Most of the time, the pucks are easily seen, easily turned away. Then, in a heartbeat, there’s a flurry of activity near the goal, and the puck is banging off skates and sticks and boards like a pinball game gone mad.

The goaltender is the loneliest man in sports. No one would trade places with him—no one in his right mind. He’s the beat cop at night in the most dangerous part of town, unarmed with only a bulletproof vest and a pair of handcuffs. His teammates walk around him carrying ten-foot poles.

Hockey talk is like a sauce in the pan before it’s reduced. The ingredients to it are things like plus/minus stats and how many lines you can roll and team speed and puck control and special teams play.

Then it gets boiled down and you’re left with one flavor that overpowers all the others.

Goaltending.

It always comes down to that, doesn’t it?

The Red Wings open the 2010-11 season at home against the Anaheim Ducks. Between those pipes set six feet apart for the Wings will be one James Howard, 26 years old and in his second full season, which means he’s not only not a rookie anymore, he’d better damn well be the next Terry Sawchuk.

I only exaggerate slightly.

The Red Wings are, once again, among the most skilled, deep, experienced teams in the entire NHL. If you placed a sawbuck on them to win the Stanley Cup, no one had better call you a fool.

They are a team that doesn’t need Sawchuk in goal to win, but they certainly don’t need a fraudulent Howard to lose it for them, either.

There was a lot of commotion in Hockeytown over the summer, what with the Red Wings signing veteran center Mike Modano and nasty defenseman Ruslan Salei and bringing back the jitterbug winger Jiri Hudler after one season in Russia.

There was talk of how rested the players are after lasting just five games into the second round of the playoffs last spring, after two consecutive years playing well into June.

You can have all that talk and it won’t mean a hill of beans if Howard doesn’t pick up where he left off last season, when he finished second in voting for Rookie of the Year.

You’ve heard the cautionary tales of goalies like Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who followed up a brilliant rookie season in 2008-09 with something pedestrian last campaign.

The Red Wings don’t need Howard to stand on his head—one of my favorite hockey terms. They just need him to be competent.

The Red Wings, in their four Cup wins and one near-miss over the past 13 years, have only really leaned on their netminder once—in 2002, when Dominik Hasek stole some games for them in just about every round. Other than that, the Red Wings have looked at their goalies and said something like, “Don’t mess this up for us and we’ll be OK.”

Howard’s journey to second place in the Calder Trophy voting wasn’t like Mason’s rapid rise. Mason was a 20-year-old punk kid when he stepped between the pipes for the Jackets two Octobers ago and proceeded to record 10 shutouts and post a 2.29 GAA.

Howard was the Little Engine That Could, chugging up the mountain and slipping back occasionally. Howard had three different tastes of the NHL, beginning during the 2005-06 season, before he finally stuck with the Red Wings last season—and that was only because Chris Osgood continued his freefall into obscurity.

I wasn’t very kind to Howard in this space a year or so ago, when I announced that he should pee or get off the pot, or something to that effect. I was concerned that he hadn’t, by age 25, shown that he had the goods to stay in the NHL.

He proved me wrong—for now.

The goalie’s resume is the length of his last game, at its longest. Often, it’s not even “What have you done for me lately?” It’s, “What have you done for me the last shift?”

The Red Wings, it says here, will be among the final four teams standing next May—with one big caveat.

If Jimmy Howard doesn’t mess it up for them.

Isn’t the life of a goaltender grand?

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