- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

DETROIT (AP) - Jimmy Howard wasn’t handed a spot in the All-Star game.

He earned it.

The Detroit Red Wings goaltender played his way into the league’s showcase of stars later this month in Ottawa after his name wasn’t among the 18 players at his position on the ballot in November.

“With my numbers last year, I probably didn’t warrant to be on there,” Howard said.

After giving up nearly three goals a game last season, Howard has bounced back.

He has an NHL-high 27 wins and ranks among league leaders by allowing fewer than two goals a game and stopping almost 93 percent of the shots that make it to him.

“I’m just playing with a lot of confidence,” he said.

It shows. And, the Red Wings couldn’t be happier to have the 27-year-old standout in net.

Jimmy is really coming into his prime,” general manager Ken Holland said. “He’s a big part of us being in the hunt in the division and conference.”

Detroit, which led the tightly contested Western Conference with 61 points on Wednesday, plays on Thursday night at Phoenix needing to keep up with or hold off Central Division challengers in St. Louis, Chicago and Nashville.

“The Central is tight and it’s probably going to be like this until the final weekend,” Howard said. “We’ve got to get points every single night to try to separate ourselves. Everyone understands the urgency we need to play with.”

The Red Wings kept Howard off the free agent market last summer by signing him to a $4.5 million, two-year contract last season. They liked what they saw from a player nurtured in the minors until he was “over-ripe” as Holland likes his prospects to become before giving them a shot to play in the NHL.

Detroit drafted Howard in the second round of the 2003 draft after he starred for three seasons at Maine, and gave him four seasons to develop with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins.

“Of course it was frustrating when you’re in the American Hockey League and you see other guys getting called up that you think you’re just as good if not better and it can weigh on your mind,” Howard said. “I’m very thankful that they waited on me and let me progress at my own rate. It worked out for us.”

Indeed.

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