Three Periods: Why it's so hard to score in today's NHL; Miller thought he'd lost eye; news & notes

Three Periods: Why it's so hard to score in today's NHL; Miller thought he'd lost eye; news & notes

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the difficulty in scoring in today’s NHL; Drew Miller’s comeback from a scary skate cut; the time a player had a piece of his face reattached and returned to a game; the Detroit Red Wings’ struggles beyond goaltending; and Nikita Kucherov’s breakout season with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

FIRST PERIOD: Why it’s so hard to score in today’s NHL

The NHL almost certainly will have only one 50-goal scorer this season – the amazing Alex Ovechkin – and no 100-point scorer. Scoring is down, right? The game has gone backwards, right?

Yes, scoring is down compared to 10 years ago. But it has been essentially flat for five years. Here are the goals per game from 2010-11 to 2014-15 through 92 percent of the schedule (where we were entering the week): 5.6, 5.5, 5.4, 5.5, 5.5. It’s a 3-2 league and has been for a while.

Yes, the standard for hooking, holding and interference isn’t as strict as it was when the league changed rules to open up the action. Penalties are down. Power plays are down. But as Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said, “there’s not as many infractions anymore,” either. The game has not gone backwards. It has evolved.

There's more speed and skill than ever before – but also better goalies and more parity. (Getty)
There's more speed and skill than ever before – but also better goalies and more parity. (Getty)

It’s hard to score these days for different reasons. There are many moving parts. The NHL hasn’t expanded since 2000-01. It has had a salary cap and new rules since 2005-06. The talent balanced out throughout the league and the lineups. The game got faster and cleaner. The process accelerated as teams decided they couldn’t afford to employ fourth-liners who could fight but couldn’t play. Coaches analyzed video and designed systems to cover every inch of ice.

Now there is more skill, not less; more speed, not less. But there is more structure, not less; more competition, not less. Stars have fewer chances to feast on poor opponents and power plays – and by the way, they’re shooting at goaltenders who are bigger and better with bigger and better equipment.

“It’s been a decade for me now since I started here,” said San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who broke into the NHL in 2005-06 as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings. “And at that point, the talent was more concentrated. It was more concentrated on four or five teams. Our first year here in Detroit, we won 58 games. You could win playing your ‘B’ game some nights. That’s just the way it was. You can’t do that now.

“The depth of lines, the detail in all four lines, the skill level on all four lines is higher. You used to be able to sneak your top-end players out against the fourth line and odds would go greatly in your favor that you would maybe get a couple offensive chances. It’s harder to beat the fourth line now. It’s harder to beat the third pair. The backup goaltenders are way better now than they were before. The league is getting better and better all the time. So it’s harder to get your 100-point guys.”

Listen to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who has taught defense to different teams in different eras in different ways.

“I’d like to see guys get 100 points,” Hitchcock told reporters in Pittsburgh recently. “I’d like to see 50-goal scorers again. I’d like to see all that stuff be brought in. But one of the problems you have right now is, there’s just too much mobility in the game. Too many teams have four lines that can skate. They have four [defensemen] that are mobile. When the mobility in the game is at the level it’s at now, they can recover ice. You don’t get the odd-man rushes that you did before. I think this is the way the game is going to be played now.”

Entering Thursday night, Ovechkin led the NHL with 50 goals. Steven Stamkos and Rick Nash were next with 40. At the same pace, Ovechkin would finish with 53, Nash with 43 and Stamkos with 42. No one else would reach 40.

Sidney Crosby led the league with 80 points. Ovechkin, John Tavares and Jakub Voracek were next with 77 each. At the same pace, Crosby would finish with 84. Ovechkin, Tavares and Voracek would finish with 81. No one else would reach 80.

Malkin's 109-point season in 2011-12 is the most prolific in the past five years. (Getty)
Malkin's 109-point season in 2011-12 is the most prolific in the past five years. (Getty)

That’s not much different than the past four seasons.

Last season, Ovechkin led the NHL with 51 goals. Corey Perry scored 43, Joe Pavelski 41. No one else hit 40. Crosby had 104 points, but no one else had more than 87.

In 2012-13, which was shortened to 48 games because of a lockout, only Ovechkin scored at a pace that would have reached 50 goals over 82 games. Only Martin St-Louis racked up points at a pace that would have given him 102 over 82 games. (Note: Crosby had 56 points though 36 games, a 127-point pace over 82 games, but sat out injured the last 12 games.)

In 2011-12, Stamkos scored 60 goals. Evgeni Malkin scored 50. Only two other players hit 40. Malkin had 109 points, Stamkos 97 and Claude Giroux 93. No one else had more than 84.

In 2010-11, Perry led the league with 50 goals. Only four others hit 40. Daniel Sedin led the league with 104 points. Four players were in the 90s. No one else had more than 86.

Two weeks ago, when the GMs held their annual meeting to discuss the state of the game, scoring was not much of an issue. The GMs recommended only one minor rule change to address it: Make the defensive center put down his stick first on faceoffs to give the offensive center an advantage.

“There’s not a lack of offense in the league,” said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who played goal in the NHL from 1970-71 to 1982-83 and has been a GM since 1994. “What’s changed now is, the goalies are better equipped. They’re better prepared. The goalies are very good. But the team defense and the team systems are very, very good.

“And you can go back a few decades ago. There was a big separation between teams, and you’d have lopsided scores. You don’t have that anymore. You have close games. Every game, whether you’re in first place or last place, your team better be ready to play. It’s harder to score now. Not that guys can’t score, because we have very skilled and talented players, but with the systems that are played and team defense, it makes it harder.”

SECOND PERIOD: Miller plays two nights after scary cut almost cost him an eye

Drew Miller planned to play for the Red Wings on Thursday night against the Boston Bruins, which is …

Drew Miller initially thought he'd lost an eye after being cut on the face by a skate blade for 60 stitches.
Drew Miller initially thought he'd lost an eye after being cut on the face by a skate blade for 60 stitches.

What’s the word?

Crazy? Courageous?

Miller took a skate blade to the right side of his face Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators. He threw off his gloves, put his hands on his face and darted straight off the ice looking for the medical staff.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, my eye is gone,’ ” he told reporters.

There was so much blood, Miller couldn’t see. Not until the doctor cleaned the blood and a dot of light appeared did Miller realize the eye was still intact. The doctor needed about 60 stitches to close two deep cuts – one running from the edge of his eyebrow towards his eye, the other picking up where that one left off below his eye running across his upper cheek.

It wasn’t the worst laceration in the history of hockey. It wasn’t life-threatening like Clint Malarchuk’s in 1989 or Richard Zednik’s in 2008.

It wasn’t the worst ever at Joe Louis Arena. Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming took a skate to the right side of his face at the Joe in 1986. He went to the hospital and needed nearly 300 stitches to close cuts that snaked above his right eyebrow, between his eye and his nose and down his cheek, almost to his mouth.

In his book “Hockeytown Doc,” former Wings team physician John Finley wrote Salming was sedated but awake. After about 90 minutes, he asked if Finley was almost done.

“Young man,” Finley told him, “we’ve just passed second base.”

Finley took three hours to repair Salming.

But Miller’s cut was the worst that Wings equipment manager Paul Boyer had seen in person in 21 seasons. It was the worst many veteran coaches and players had seen themselves. And Miller wanted to go back out for the third period. Only the medical staff and his wife stopped him.

“I couldn’t believe how bad it was,” said teammate Justin Abdelkader.

This is not to say hockey is superior to other sports. This is not to trumpet hockey players as tougher than other professional athletes. But in no other sport do athletes play with knives on their feet, and in no other sport is there such a risk of being filleted like that – even now that visors are mandatory for all incoming players. The return-to-play culture is incredible. We should never go numb to it.

Miller was wearing a half-shield when he got cut. He practiced Wednesday in a full shield and planned to play with a half-shield and a jaw guard Thursday night. It was to be his 159th straight game. The last time he sat out was the final four games and first playoff game of 2012-13, when he had a broken hand.

“It’s kind of a fluke thing,” Abdelkader said. “It can happen. You’re aware of it. But you can’t really worry about it.”

THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL

Detroit's goalies are on the hot seat , but they're not the only Wings players who have struggled of late. (Getty)
Detroit's goalies are on the hot seat , but they're not the only Wings players who have struggled of late. (Getty)

— The Miller incident recalled another story: In October 1999 at the Joe, the Wings’ Darren McCarty took a skate to the face above his left eye and lost a piece of flesh, including part of his eyebrow. Teammate Sergei Fedorov found it, in all places, a faceoff circle. “I find his skin,” Fedorov said then, giving one of the most incredible hockey quotes ever. “At first I passed by it, because I didn’t know it was one of ours. But then I go back.” Using two sticks, players scooped it up in some snow and brought it to the bench. Trainer John Wharton said it looked like “a chunk of salmon.” Finley sewed it back on with about 40 stitches, and McCarty returned to the game griping about having to wear a shield. After the game, the reattached skin turned green.

— Goaltending is a huge issue in Detroit. Rookie Petr Mrazek was set to make his fourth straight start Thursday night and appeared to have the inside track at the starting job for the playoffs, overtaking veteran Jimmy Howard. But the issues go deeper. The Wings have not looked like the same team since returning from a five-game road trip in February. They hadn’t lost back-to-back games in regulation all season; now they haven’t won back-to-back games in almost a month. They have gone 4-8-2 over their past 14 games because of lethargy, sloppiness and injuries. It goes all the way to their best players. While Pavel Datsyuk has missed six of the last eight games, Henrik Zetterberg has two points in that stretch. “We don’t get the heat the goalies get, and I don’t think it’s fair,” Zetterberg said.

— Nikita Kucherov had nine goals and 18 points in 52 games as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. He was scratched for two playoff games. Now? He has 28 goals and 61 points in 78 games. “He made a conscious choice in the off-season, ‘If I want to make this team, I’ve got to learn to play without the puck,’ ” said coach Jon Cooper. “And he wasn’t doing that last year. Sometimes you have to put the development of player and team above. Sometimes it’s like a parent. Sometimes you’ve got to discipline your kids.” It helps that he’s playing on a line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, but Cooper said the story would be the same if he were on another line. “It still doesn’t change that he backchecks his ass off,” Cooper said. “He’s not afraid to go into a corner first. He goes to all the dirty areas. That doesn’t change because he’s playing with those two, and that’s the difference.”