Howard made 16 of his 23 saves in the third period while protecting a one-goal lead and defenseman Brian Lashoff finally clinched the win with an empty-net goal with 20 seconds left to play.
It was the first goal of the season for Lashoff and came in his 50th game. He has just two goals in his 82 NHL games.
Scottie Upshall scored for the Panthers with 26 seconds to go in the first period and Howard turned aside every other Florida attempt.
Daniel Alfredsson tied it on the power play 6:30 into the second period and Gustav Nyquist put the Red Wings in front to stay later in the stanza.
Both Alfredson and Nyquist will be competing next week at the Olympics for Sweden.
Florida's Tim Thomas made 30 saves.