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CHRIS OSGOOD'S MISTAKE was leaving his hotel room door open a crack. It was the summer of 2005, and the Red Wings All-Star was in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the team's annual goalie camp. Expecting teammate Manny Legace, he was instead startled by a stranger who looked more like hotel staff than an NHL player.

The stranger was Jimmy Howard, the team's 2003 second-rounder from the University of Maine. The rookie simply wanted to introduce himself and apologized for the intrusion. Taken by the kid's lack of presumption, Osgood invited him in -- his way of inducting Howard into the team's fraternity of goalies.

Six years later, Howard has emerged as Detroit's best homegrown stopper since Osgood himself. Howard led the NHL in wins at the midway point while boasting a 1.98 goals-against average. But as his predecessors know, playing goalie for the Wings can be tough. Win and you're doing what's expected. Lose and the blame comes fast. Howard's own coach is guarded in his praise. "He's gotten better," Mike Babcock says. "Now he has to do it year after year after year, for about 15 years -- then you can say he's good."

Thing is, in his third full season as Detroit's starter, Howard is being relied on not just to protect leads but to win games.