DETROIT - After struggling through the last month of the regular season, the Detroit Red Wings are turning to Petr Mrazek in goal for the opening game of their playoff series against the NHL's highest-scoring team.
The 23-year-old Mrazek will make his post-season debut Thursday night in Game 1 at Tampa Bay. Coach Mike Babcock picked him over Jimmy Howard, announcing the decision after practice Monday.
"I just thought that gave us our best way to start the series," Babcock said.
Howard has been Detroit's No. 1 goalie since the 2009-10 season. Two years ago, the Red Wings kept him off the free agent market by giving him a $31.8 million, six-year contract.
Howard looked fine this season until he injured his groin in a Jan. 10 game at Washington. Mrazek played well in his absence, and Howard has only an .896 save percentage since returning. Since March 12, Howard's save percentage is .879, while Mrazek's is a lofty .936.
The Red Wings finished the regular season in a 7-10-3 slump, but they were able to extend their streak of playoff appearances to 24 seasons. Mrazek had the team's only two shutouts during that rough stretch — a 4-0 win over Tampa Bay on March 28, and a 35-save effort against Carolina on Saturday.
That win over the Hurricanes came in the regular-season finale, and Babcock said he decided on his starter for the post-season after that game.
"There's risk in anything you do," Babcock said. "Obviously, if this was something that was obvious to the whole world, you guys wouldn't be spending five minutes of my time asking me the same questions over and over again. Pete Mrazek's starting."
Howard was not available to reporters after Babcock's announcement.
The Red Wings drafted Mrazek in the fifth round in 2010, and the Czech prospect made his NHL debut in 2013. He played sparingly for the Red Wings before making 26 starts this season. He's 16-9-2 with a 2.38 goals-against average in 2014-15.
He'll face a Tampa Bay team that had 11 players score at least 10 goals during the regular season, led by Steven Stamkos' 43.
"They're the No. 1 team in the NHL in scoring goals," Mrazek said. "We have to be patient in our zone."
Mrazek is trying to take the playoff assignment in stride.
"It's just a game — who's going to score goals is going to win," he said. "Who's going to be smarter and more patient is going to have the victory."
The Lightning won three of four meetings with Detroit during the regular season. They beat Howard in a shootout Nov. 9, then scored five goals on Mrazek on 15 shots in a 5-1 win Jan. 29.
Howard was in net for Tampa Bay's 3-1 win March 20, then Mrazek blanked the Lightning just over a week later, making 23 saves to help Detroit to its shutout win.
"Whoever we're going with here, we're comfortable," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said.
Detroit's most recent Stanley Cup title came in 2008. Goalies Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood split time almost evenly during the regular season, and in the middle a first-round series against Nashville, Babcock replaced Hasek with Osgood. The Red Wings went on to win the Cup.
Now, Babcock is hoping Mrazek is the right choice against a dangerous Tampa Bay team.
"It's a team sport, and if the team plays real good, it gives your goaltenders a better chance," Babcock said. "Pete's played lots of good games for us this year and done a fair bit of winning for us."