Late Saturday night, after leaving in the third period of a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard had an MRI exam at the Detroit Medical Center.

Howard lay in a coffin-like tube with a sore left shoulder. For about 45 minutes, he had nothing to do but listen to the machine's loud clack-clack-clacking and worry about what the results of the exam might reveal.

"I was just sitting there, thinking, 'Please don't be anything. Please don't be anything,' " Howard said.

It was nothing major, as it turned out, just a sprain. Howard skated Monday morning before the Wings faced the Chicago Blackhawks. He hopes to take shots Tuesday, return to the lineup soon and be fully prepared for the playoffs in a couple of weeks.

At the time, though, it was nothing short of scary for Howard, the Wings and Detroit fans. If healthy, the Wings – winners of four of the past 13 Stanley Cups, about to appear in the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season – remain top contenders.

Howard appreciates his opportunity even more now. Some might appreciate his importance even more now, too.

"He's our guy," Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "He's our man, and we need him in the playoffs."

The concern on talk radio recently has been about Howard's statistics. He posted an impressive 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage last season, when he was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. Those numbers weren't as good in the playoffs – 2.75, .915 – when the Wings lost in the second round to the San Jose Sharks. Now they're even worse – 2.77, .908 – though he's tied for second in the league in wins with 34.

But the concern on the postgame show Saturday night shifted to Howard's health. Backup Chris Osgood is still nursing a surgically repaired groin, and Wings general manager Ken Holland's attempt to add insurance by signing Evgeni Nabokov in January fizzled when the New York Islanders claimed Nabokov on waivers (and Nabokov refused to report).

Without Howard, the Wings are down to Joey MacDonald, who has spent most of his career in the American Hockey League, and Thomas McCollum, whom the Wings called up from the East Coast Hockey League to back up Monday night against the 'Hawks.

Don't know what you got till it's gone? That's the way it is in Detroit, where people often think the Wings win because of their skill but lose because of their goaltenders.

"You know what you're getting," Howard said. "You listen to Oz and what he's been through over the years and the stories, and you just roll with it."

Osgood, 38, is in his second tour with the Wings. He has won three Cups with them, and he was the No. 1 guy on two of those runs – plus another run to Game 7 of the Cup final. But he didn't start receiving full credit for his accomplishments until he became the 10th NHL goaltender to reach 400 wins earlier this season.