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Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Kimmo Timonen’s difficult comeback from blood clots; an AHL coach’s perspective on 3-on-3 overtime; the debate over video review of goaltender interference; Paul Devorski’s final games as an NHL referee; a hot prospect’s struggles in his first pro season.
FIRST PERIOD: Timonen pushing through early stages of remarkable comeback
The game feels fast. His body feels sore. In Kimmo Timonen’s first three games with the Chicago Blackhawks, his ice time dropped from 17:29 to 14:49 to 10:35.
This was to be expected.
Timonen will tell you this is his training camp because he hadn’t played all season. But it’s much more than that.
The man is almost 40. He had blood clots in his right leg and both lungs last summer. Not only hadn’t he played all season, he hadn’t even skated from April to February. He had been on the ice for only two-and-a-half weeks when the Blackhawks acquired him from the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 27, and he hopped into a game March 2 with a new team, a new coach, a new defense partner, a new everything.
“When I came here, they had 18 games left,” Timonen said. “I’m going to need all those 18 games to get ready. I’m still far away, but I’m looking forward to getting into the shape where I feel comfortable and get these minor problems away.”
He has no doubt he can do it. And why would anyone doubt him now?
His is a story of desire and perseverance.
In 15 NHL seasons – eight with the Nashville Predators, seven with the Flyers – Timonen never won the Stanley Cup. He signed a one-year extension with the Flyers on June 13 with the intention of taking one last shot at it before retiring.
Timonen was working out at home in Finland over the summer when he felt pain in his right calf for a few days. He went to the hospital, where doctors discovered the clots. They told him he had to be on blood thinners for six months and avoid cuts and bruises.
“The low point was while I was lying in the hospital bed and they said, ‘OK, this might be it for you,’ ” Timonen said.
Timonen returned to Philadelphia and found a routine, working out Monday through Friday, traveling to watch his son play hockey on the weekend. He would run, bike and lift. To mix it up, he would play tennis. It was unsafe to skate.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall had many meetings with Timonen. The clots in his lungs cleared, but as recently as January, the clot in his leg had not.
“He always said, ‘You’re so stubborn. You can’t let this go, can you?’ ” Timonen said. “I said, ‘I can’t.’ ”
Timonen wanted to retire on his own terms – with his skates on, not his shoes, as he often says now. He kept the attitude of a 5-foot-10, 194-pounder who wasn’t drafted until 250th overall in 1993 and didn’t break into the NHL until 1998.
“Nothing was given to me in my hockey career,” Timonen said. “I had to earn it. And this is one of those things when I kind of set my mind into it. If there’s a chance, I’m going to fight for it.”
When Timonen was cleared to start skating in February, the Flyers were far out of the playoff picture. Hextall asked if he wanted to stay with the Flyers, how he felt about going elsewhere. The Blackhawks had been asking about him from the beginning.
It was an easy decision. Timonen would get one last shot at the Cup. The Blackhawks would get a veteran, skilled defenseman who could play at a high level if he could find his form. The Flyers would get a second-round draft pick plus a conditional pick – a fourth-rounder, or a third-rounder if the ’Hawks won two playoff rounds and Timonen played half the games, or a second-rounder if they won three rounds and he played half the games.
Timonen had the usual adrenaline rush in his first game, then the usual pain and struggles afterward. He has to push through it. He has already pushed through so much already.
“I’m still far away from being in game shape and just being my normal self,” Timonen said. “But the only way to get there is playing the games and being in that game moment and just seeing guys flying by you and battling in the corners. The game is fast. I’ll put it this way. It feels really fast. But I truly believe that once I get way more games under my belt I’ll be able to help this team.”
SECOND PERIOD: A coach’s perspective on 3-on-3 OT in the AHL
If Jeff Blashill could speak to the NHL’s general managers when they meet Monday through Wednesday in Boca Raton, Fla., this is what he would say about 3-on-3 overtime in the AHL:
“It’s been nothing but positive,” said Blashill, coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings’ affiliate. “I think it’s made the overtimes that much more exciting. I’m actually not an anti-shootout guy. I would say I enjoy the shootout. I understand why it’s in place. I’m somebody who’d like to see the game decided. But with that said, the excitement level once it goes to 3-on-3 is outstanding.”
The NHL introduced 4-on-4 OT in 1999-2000. It introduced the shootout in 2005-06, eliminating ties. That season, 11.79 percent of games ended in a shootout. Every season since, the percentage has been higher. This season, it’s 14.07.
Though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is a big supporter of the shootout – and he often says market research shows the fans love it – there has been a growing sentiment among GMs to deemphasize it because too many games are being decided with a skills competition instead of some form of actual hockey.
The AHL introduced a new format this season. OT is a max of seven minutes instead of five. Teams play 4-on-4 until the first whistle after three minutes, then 3-on-3.
It has achieved the desired results, according to data provided by Jason Chaimovitch, the AHL’s vice-president of communications. Through Wednesday, about the same number of games have ended in regulation (75.9 percent last season, 75.7 percent this season), but far fewer have ended in a shootout (15.6 percent last season, 5.6 percent this season).
Out of 167 OT goals, 95 have been scored during 4-on-4 time, 72 during 3-on-3 time. Those numbers include special-teams goals based on original manpower. In terms of actual manpower, 77 goals have been scored 4-on-4, 66 at 3-on-3 and 21 at 4-on-3. Three have been scored on penalty shots.
Fewer players means less coaching. More ice means more speed and skill.
Blashill said the Griffins don’t practice 3-on-3 much, and coaches simply can’t add structure, anyway. They have to go from zone coverage to man-on-man. Most use two forwards and a defenseman – their highest-end players – and turn them loose. (One team tried three forwards against the Griffins recently but gave up the winning goal.)
“There’s no layers of support, and what happens is, any chance one way goes back the other way in a hurry if there’s a save or a rebound of any kind,” Blashill said. “I think the goaltender gets involved. Petr Mrazek has been real active in the 3-on-3. If he makes a save, he’s taking a step forward and looking to play a puck up, because he knows it can be an outnumbered rush the other way.”
There is still a lot to discuss.
One issue the Griffins and Wings have kicked around internally: Sometimes there isn’t a whistle for a while after three minutes, leaving relatively little 3-on-3. Is there any way to whistle the play dead after three minutes to get more 3-on-3 time? Maybe if the puck is in – or enters – the neutral zone?
One issue for the NHL Players’ Association: Does this put more stress on the players, especially top players?
But consider that Van Andel Arena rocked when the Griffins won the Calder Cup in 2012-13, and it has rocked much the same way during 3-on-3 OT this season.
“People have come up to me and said, ‘I haven’t seen it that exciting since the Calder Cup finals,’ ” Blashill said. “That’s a pretty strong statement.”
THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL
— Another topic for the GMs: video review for goaltender interference. Should they take the call on the ice to video review, and if so, how? First the GMs need to clarify the rule in wording or interpretation. For example, how do you define when a player was driven into the goaltender or when a goaltender embellished contact? Then the GMs need to decide on a process. Does Toronto handle it? Is there a coach’s challenge? Could the referees look at a monitor in the penalty box? “I think with the goaltender interference, if we’re going to expand video review, people expect us to get it right and we want to make sure the process is right,” said NHL executive Colin Campbell after the GMs met in November. “If we can make it better, we’ll implement it. But it’s got to be perfect almost when we implement it.”
— Referee Paul Devorski has less than a dozen games left in his long NHL career. The 56-year-old was going to retire in January, but the league had so many injuries it talked him into working through the end of the regular season. When the NHL decided to give Evgeny Romasko a chance to become the first Russian referee in league history, it paired him with Devorski so the veteran could help the rookie on the ice and off during a three-game trip. Devorski will finish just short of 1,600 games. His final assignment? Pittsburgh at Philadelphia on April 5. “I picked a good one, didn’t I?” he said, smiling.
— Anthony Mantha scored 50 goals in 67 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2012-13. Then he scored 57 goals in 57 games in the QMJHL last season. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound forward had a chance to make the Red Wings’ roster this season at age 20. But he suffered a broken leg at a prospect tournament in August and ended up in the AHL. “All that expectation, and then you jump into the American League when it’s going full go and you’re not full go,” Blashill said. “That’s a tough thing.” Mantha has 13 goals in 49 games this season. “It’s a process,” Blashill said. “What I’ve found with the young guys is, they come in expecting to have tons of success, and when they don’t have the amount they had maybe in junior, a lot of times it’s the first time they’ve struggled. They’re going to lose that confidence at times and you have to make sure they keep it up. I still see lots of positives there. It’s just going to take some time.” The Wings are famously patient with their prospects, and you know they’ll be patient with Mantha.
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