Detroit Red Wings fans can wonder all they want about how their season might have turned out differently had Jimmy Howard remained healthy.
The goalie isn't about to play that game.
"You can't think like that," Howard said after making 24 saves in his return to help the Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night.
Howard hadn't played in the NHL since injuring a knee Dec. 20.
Tomas Tatar scored twice, and Andreas Athanasiou and Xavier Ouellet added goals for Detroit.
Artemi Panarin and Trevor Van Riemsdyk scored for the Blackhawks.
Howard was among the NHL leaders in goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.934) at the time of his injury.
"I was a little jumpy at first," Howard said. "I think it was the nerves. But I was able to settle down. "As soon as I had some pucks stick to me the last minute of the first period, I felt more and more at home out there."
It didn't begin like it would a night to remember for Howard.
The Blackhawks opened the scoring at 4:23 of the first period on an impressive display of skill by Panarin and Patrick Kane. Just outside the Detroit zone, Panarin slid a backhand pass through defenseman Danny DeKeyser's leg to Kane, who carried the puck into the Detroit end. Kane zipped a quick cross-ice pass to a closing Panarin and he drove a one-timer past Howard.
"Kane's a world-class passer," Howard said. "Not a lot of guys can do that on their backhand, put it right into a guy's wheelhouse. That was an exceptional pass."
The Detroit forward line of Henrik Zetterberg, Gus Nyquist and Tatar took control, figuring in all four Red Wings goals.
Tatar scored what proved to be the winner late in the second period and added an insurance goal in the third period to end Detroit's three-game losing streak. He has a team-high 17 goals.
Tatar screened Chicago goalie Corey Crawford on Ouellet's goal that made it 1-1, and he drew an assist when Athanasiou gave Detroit the lead for good with eight seconds to go in the first period.
Zetterberg set up both of Tatar's goals, Zetterberg's sixth multi-point performance in the last nine games.
On Tatar's winner at 15:17 of the second period, Crawford stopped Zetterberg's shot but Tatar was on the doorstep to smack the rebound home after missing on his first chance.
"I got kind of lucky," Tatar said. "I missed my first chance and it stayed right there and I just got the rebound."
A low point shot by Van Riemsdyk beat Howard on the stick side with just 44.3 seconds left in the second period but that was as close as the Blackhawks would get.
"The last 14 or 15 games, we've played with a lot of pace and energy, but that wasn't there tonight," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
Tatar completed the scoring at 15:31 of the third period.
The Blackhawks lost for the second straight night and had their club-record road winning streak end at eight games.
Chicago's top forward line of Kane, Panarin and Artem Anisimov was victimized on all four Detroit goals.
"It probably falls on myself tonight," Kane said. "A lot of bad turnovers and plays and missed coverage in our end."
NOTES: Including this game, Chicago will close out the regular season with 16 games over a 30-day span. ... Facing his former Detroit teammates for the first time, left winger Tomas Jurco skated on a line with Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger. ... Saying he was unhappy with his play in recent games, Detroit coach Jeff Blashill made rookie right winger Anthony Mantha, tied for third on the team with 14 goals, a healthy scratch.
Blackhawks: Welcome the Minnesota Wild to the United Center on Sunday in a potential showdown for first place in the Central Division.
Red Wings: Host the New York Rangers on Sunday.