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Goalies face unique obstacles in concussion recovery

Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller has sustained two concussions in less than a year. (Getty Images)

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Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller has sustained two concussions in less than a year. (Getty Images)

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller has sustained two concussions in less than a year.

For NHL goaltenders, the mind-body connection is uniquely critical. They must keep it finely tuned to play 60 minutes or more, to maintain concentration from start to finish, to track a tiny black puck whizzing at high speed through a thicket of sticks and skates and shin pads, to react in a split-second. They have to train their brains.

The Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller does exercises to build up his focus before the season. The Toronto Maple Leafs' James Reimer does hard cardio sessions in the summer – maybe a three-minute mile on a stationary bike, maybe three times up and down a set of stairs. As soon as he finishes, he grabs a piece of paper displaying the numbers one through 30 randomly. With his legs burning and heart racing, he points to each number in sequence as fast as he can.

So what happens when that is short-circuited by a concussion (or, ahem, concussion-like symptoms)? Even if their recovery is no different medically, goaltenders might have a harder time coming back from a concussion than a skater because of the demands of their position, and they are harder to replace than a skater is. That strengthens the argument that the NHL should do more to protect them.

Miller has suffered two concussions in the past year – one when he took a shot off his mask last March, another when he took a hit from the Boston Bruins' Milan Lucic in November. He said he would tell himself to watch a movie or read a book or something, and soon he would … just kind of … find himself … spacing out.

"My issue every time has been, it affects your focus and concentration," Miller said. "You feel like you have ADD. You feel like you have extreme ADD when you have the headaches and you have the uncomfortable 'off' feeling. I mean, I think history can kind of show I'm a very intense, focused person, and when I can't even get through a 10-, 15-minute task at home, which I can usually sit down and do, something's wrong."

Reimer was injured after the Montreal Canadiens' Brian Gionta bumped him in the crease in October. Officially, the Leafs said only that he had concussion-like symptoms. Reimer said he didn't think he had any injured-related problems with his focus and concentration, but he could "totally see how that would affect guys." And he made a good point: There is the injury itself, and then there is a period of inactivity that follows it.

"Sometimes you're 'off,' and is it because still there's some lingering symptom or is it just because you've been off for so long and you're just not quite back?" Reimer said. "When I came back, as a goalie, that's the toughest thing is being able to focus for 60 minutes – or one of the key things. When you're out, your brain relaxes, per se. Your brain needs to work out again so it can focus, just like your body needs to get back in shape."

Miller said concussions in sports are misunderstood in general. People still think players just get their bells rung. Even if they understand concussions are serious, they think when players are cleared to return, it's back to normal. It's not that simple, especially for a goaltender.

"Your brain controls everything – your body and even emotions," Miller said. "You feel depressed. You feel like you can't focus. And obviously if you go on the ice and try to play hockey at the highest level as a goaltender with pucks coming at you and trying to maintain awareness, read the plays, it's definitely not a great situation."

Miller pointed out his preparation begins the night before a game and continues through the day of a game. "It's a focus that you have for a long time to do the job right," he said. "You have to be really into what you're doing. That feeling kind of takes you out of it."

That feeling is not the sole reason Miller has struggled this season. He lost four straight games and gave up five goals in a victory before the Lucic collision. But he missed three weeks, and he was so concerned about another concussion that he switched from titanium to steel in his mask and switched to harder, denser foam in his helmet, making the whole thing heavier. He was just starting to feel like himself again and shake some bad habits – before he allowed five goals on 14 shots and got yanked Monday night in a 5-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

"It's not just something that you go …"

Miller snapped his fingers.

" 'Hey, I'm good,' " he said. "So it's a process."

Consider, too, that goaltenders stay on the ice and have nowhere to hide. A skater takes 45-second shifts. If he has a bad shift, the puck might not end up in his net. Few might notice. His ice time can be gradually increased as he tries to eliminate what Sabres coach Lindy Ruff called "that delay in his game." He has 17 other skaters who can pick up the slack.

"A player, there is definitely a lot more of a leeway to easing yourself back in," Reimer said. "As a goalie, it's just …"

Reimer snapped his fingers.

"You're thrown right back in the fire," he said, "and you're either good or you're not."

Reimer started the season 4-0-1, looking like the goaltender who starred during the second half of last season. He was injured Oct. 22. He didn't come back until Dec. 3. He went 1-3-1 in his next five games, and he still has not recaptured his form.

I'm still not sure goaltenders should be overprotected, especially when they leave the crease to play a puck the way Miller did during the Lucic incident. They shouldn't be fair game, but they shouldn't have free reign, either. They must accept the risk in that situation, the same way an NFL quarterback accepts the risk when he scrambles and fights for a first down.

But we haven't even gotten into how much trickier it is to diagnose a concussion in a goaltender during a game, and remember: Lucic received only a two-minute charging penalty for running Miller. No. 1 goaltenders are virtually irreplaceable and have a major impact on a team's chances. No wonder some general managers want the NHL to have a stronger deterrent. The trade-off isn't equitable.

"I think that goalies are getting run pretty often," Reimer said. "Obviously there's lots of times where, why not bump him? You might not get a penalty, and even if you do, whoop-de-doo. Like Lucic on Miller. Why wouldn't you bowl him over? What did he get? Two minutes? Two minutes, and Miller is out for how long and he's still not the same? Why wouldn't you as a player? You'd be dumb as a player not to."

Reimer laughed. Sort of.

"I always played with an older brother," he said. "I was bumped a lot, and I know when a guy means to hit you and accidentally hits you. It's tough."

It can get in a goalie's head, even deeper than we realized.

FIRST PERIOD

About a month ago, the Minnesota Wild sat atop the NHL standings. It had won seven straight. It was 20-7-3. It was the surprise of the season.

And now? The Wild doesn't even hold a playoff spot. It is ninth in the West. It has gone 2-10-4 since that torrid start. It is struggling to save the season.

When the Wild was winning, everything was going its way. The players were worried more about playing than the playoffs. They were generating just enough offense because everyone was chipping in, the defensive structure was sound and the goaltending was great. Their confidence was so strong, they became known for their resilience. Injuries didn't seem to matter. The Wild was 12-6-0 when allowing the first goal.

But all of that has gone the other way. The Wild has something to lose now, and the injuries have taken a toll – especially among the top-six forwards with Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse out. Players have strayed from the system, worried about the results instead of the process, trying to compensate for what is missing. Now when something goes wrong, the team crumbles.

"Certainly confidence-wise, we're a little bit shaken," said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo. "Earlier in the year was a different time. For us, there were no pressures. There were no thoughts about what we were losing at that time. Our complete focus was on building our identity and building our game. Next thing you know, we have this great thing in front of us that starts to slip away. Guys are feeling that. Creates a lot of tension."

Before practice Wednesday, Yeo and the players talked about channeling their effort the right way, getting back to building their identity and building their game. They talked about focusing on the process again – the things, Yeo said, "you have to do through the course of the game that are going to wear down the opponent, that are going to frustrate the opponent, that are going to take them off their game and get you to yours."

General manager Chuck Fletcher has been working the phones. He was looking for offensive help even before Koivu went down with the latest marquee injury, and that only increased the urgency for a team trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But the Wild GM has to be careful – and realistic.

"You can't wave a magic wand and have a deal pop up," Fletcher said. "The scary thing, too, is, you can make big mistakes when you feel pressure to do something. You could end up making a move that doesn't make any sense at all. So you've got to be really smart. Certainly if something's available, I'll try to do it. …

"I think I'm doing a disservice to our players if I'm not trying to give them the ammunition to make the playoffs. But the way we're going now, one player is not going to all of a sudden turn everything around, too. We need to get back to what we were, and we need to become the team we were earlier in the sense of being a team."

SECOND PERIOD

From talking to general managers around the league, it seems uncertain how things will play out leading up to the Feb. 27 trade deadline. The Canadiens and Flames have already made a move – swapping Michael Cammalleri and Rene Bourque as part of a larger package last Friday. But what's next?

Toronto GM Brian Burke's stated philosophy is to make deals sooner rather than later, because he thinks executives make mistakes under deadline pressure. He acquired defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Jan. 31, 2010. He acquired Joffrey Lupul on Feb. 9, 2011. He needs to make a move imminently because the Leafs, who haven't made the playoffs since before the 2004-05 lockout, have slipped to ninth in the East.

Buffalo GM Darcy Regier, as reluctant as he has been to swing deals in the past, is under pressure to make a move with the Sabres struggling badly in their first season under big-spending owner Terry Pegula.

But as one GM said, look at the standings. Only a few teams are truly out of the race at this point, meaning there are many more buyers than sellers. That's why there is a lot of chatter but little action at the moment.

If someone is willing to pay a high price now, that could break the dam as teams scramble for the limited high-quality assets. That dynamic played out last season. But there is an added wrinkle this season: The potential prize of the market is Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter, a pending unrestricted free agent. The Preds are trying to sign him, and GM David Poile is on record saying he will take it to Feb. 27 if necessary. Teams might wait for that domino to fall, in addition to the usual reasons to wait.

"We still have a lot of games to play until Feb. 27, so I think a lot of teams are waiting to see how their team responds, and then injuries happen," Fletcher said. "Teams that were good in one area two weeks ago now all of a sudden have holes to fill. It's kind of a moving target.

"That's probably why teams wait, because if you do something now and all of a sudden you lose two defensemen to an injury, maybe your needs change. I think guys are somewhat a little bit careful too far out because you don't want to be trading what assets you have for a need that may not be as pressing as a need three weeks from now. It's a real chess game that way."

THIRD PERIOD

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The Red Wings deserve full marks for their 15-game home winning streak. It is the longest in their storied history, it is the longest the NHL has seen since 1976, and it isn't overly reliant on overtime and shootouts. The first dozen games of the streak were all won in regulation. Only one was won in OT. Only one was won in a shootout.

But it doesn't exactly feel like a streak. It began with the Wings winning the final four games of a seven-game homestand in early November, and the latest three victories came during a recent three-game homestand. But the eight victories in between were sprinkled in between road trips, and the Wings have been up and down on the road. They are 9-11-0 away from Joe Louis Arena.

And that is a little counterintuitive. The Wings were better on the road (26-11-4) than they were at home (21-14-6) last season. The Joe provides some advantages – particularly good ice for a skilled team, because it is virtually a hockey-only building. But aren't skilled teams supposed to struggle at home, because they want to put on a show for their fans, while playing a simpler game on the road?

"That's a good question," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "That's what we said about our team last year, and we were great on the road, and this year, we're good at home, and we don't know why we're not good on the road. So I'd like to tell you I have all the answers. We don't.

"The bottom line, if you play well without the puck – and I don't care if that's at home or on the road – you're going to win a lot of games, and we've been way better without the puck in our own building than we have been on the road, and to me, that's why we're winning."

The dynamic adds even more urgency for the Wings in an already insane race. The Wings slipped late last season and ceded the No. 3 seed in the West to the San Jose Sharks by one point. They ended up losing to the Sharks in the second round in seven games, and Game 7 was, of course, on the road.

No division in the NHL is more competitive than the Central right now. Heading into Thursday night's action, the Chicago Blackhawks were tied for the league lead with 62 points. The Wings were right behind them with 61 points. The St. Louis Blues were right behind them with 60 points. And the Nashville Predators weren't far behind with 56 points. In other words, the margin is razor thin between a top seed and a fourth, a fifth or even a sixth seed.

POWER RANKINGS

TOP 6

New York Rangers1. New York Rangers: Owner James Dolan is talking about the Stanley Cup, and coach John Tortorella is right to call BS. As well as the Rangers have played, they have a long way to go to be champions. They can't prove anything right now – even if they beat the defending champs in Boston's building on Saturday. The Rangers have to keep their heads down and keep working. That's how they have gotten where they are.

Boston2. Boston Bruins: Saturday's game ought to be a good one, though. The Rangers will want to make a statement, and the Bruins should rise to the occasion. It comes at a great time for the B's, who have flirted with their first slump since October by going 3-3-0 over their last six. Coach Claude Julien said they're not competing hard enough right now. Gotta think they will compete against New York on national TV.

Vancouver 3. Vancouver Canucks: The little drama between Alain Vigneault and Ryan Kesler is silly. Vigneault told the media Kesler isn't using his teammates like he can. Kesler said the coach could talk to him. Whatever. Vigneault is just stating the obvious, and Kesler is just being his prickly self. Kesler is coming off hip surgery and still has 12 goals and 31 points. This is not a big deal.

Detroit4. Detroit Red Wings: Everyone is linking the Oilers' Ales Hemsky to the Wings in trade chatter. But the Wings have a lot of Hemsky types. What they could really use is a Ryan Smyth type if Smyth is willing to leave Edmonton as a rental. The Wings love veterans, and Smyth could give them more net presence for the playoffs.

St. Louis5. St. Louis Blues: A few weeks ago, GM Doug Armstrong joked about signing goaltender Brian Elliott to a two-way contract with a $600,000 NHL salary. "If we knew that this was going to be the outcome," he said, "we would have signed him to a three- or four-year deal." The Blues just signed him to a two-year, $3.6 million extension. They locked him up, and though he passed on a chance to cash in even more in free agency, he got some security.

Chicago6. Chicago Blackhawks: Not only have rookies Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes helped the 'Hawks overcome the loss of Patrick Sharp to injury, they have put pressure on underperforming forwards Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik. Shaw has five goals and an assist in eight games. Hayes has four goals and seven points in 10 games.

BOTTOM 6

Anaheim25. Anaheim Ducks: Maybe GM Bob Murray's trade threat did just what it was designed to do. The Ducks are on a 6-0-1 run, in which they have outscored their opponents 33-13.

New York Islanders26. New York Islanders: John Tavares is on a 10-game scoring streak, but that's the only consistent thing about the Isles. Beat Detroit, 5-1. Lose to Philly, 3-2. Beat Buffalo, 4-2. Lose to Nashville, 3-1. Beat Washington, 3-0.

Tampa Bay27. Tampa Bay Lightning: Wonder if GM Steve Yzerman will make a deadline deal with his former team. Perhaps the Red Wings' greatest weakness is defensive depth. Matt Gilroy is a pending unrestricted free agent who skates well. He could fit the Wings as a third-pairing guy.

Edmonton28. Edmonton Oilers: Can it get any worse? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is hurt. Jordan Eberle is hurt. Now Taylor Hall is hurt, and he's hurt because he wasn't wearing a helmet during warmups. He stepped on a puck, slid into a teammate and took a skate blade in the forehead when another teammate tried to jump out of the way.

Carolina29. Carolina Hurricanes: Scary to see Jeff Skinner take a hard hit from Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik on Tuesday night in only his second game back from a concussion. He came back after a visit to the quiet room, but considering the nature of concussions, he will be watched even more closely now.

Columbus30. Columbus Blue Jackets: If Derick Brassard is moved before the deadline, it will be interesting to see how much he is helped by a change of scenery. He has not lived up to his potential in Columbus, not even when playing with Rick Nash, but he has five goals and 10 points in his last 13 games. How much could he help a playoff team?

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: The NHL and NHLPA are close to an agreement on the hockey-related revenue the union has disputed, though nothing is signed yet. It's a good sign when the two sides agree on anything ahead of collective bargaining, but it's an especially good sign when they agree on something involving money.

MINUS: Brad Marchand on Sami Salo. Nick Foligno on Dion Phaneuf. Now that players are more conscious of not hitting high, to avoid contact with the head, will they start hitting low more often? "I don't think you're going to see more," Phaneuf said. "I hope not."

PLUS: Phaneuf would have been the best choice for All-Star Game captain opposite Daniel Alfredsson, just so he could play the villain in the Battle of Ontario with the game in Ottawa. But Zdeno Chara was the next-best choice. He's a former Senator and the captain of the reigning Stanley Cup champions, and there should still be some spice in the all-star fantasy draft. Can't see Chara picking any Canucks.

MINUS: I know players love the look and feel of warming up without helmets, and I know they're big boys who want to protect their rights. But when you sign a multimillion-dollar contract, it makes no sense to risk unnecessary injuries like the one Hall suffered. Calling Hall's injury "pretty horrific," Leafs coach Ron Wilson talked about "the silliness of having a bare head" and said he would think about requiring helmets in warmups. Sorry, but after looking at Hall's face, I think every team should.

PLUS: The Ottawa Senators are 9-1-1 in their past 11 and rank fifth in the East. Not bad for the team that was supposed to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in the league. We'll know a little more, though, after a four-game trip to San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

MINUS: The Sidney Crosby counter is at 17 games and counting. No. 18 comes Thursday night, when the Penguins visit the Rangers. At least Kris Letang was set to return from his concussion.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

“Get to see raw NBC feed in press box. Milbury just had his head on desk like a schoolkid, resting his chin on his hands, waiting for Pierre.”

If only NBC showed the public precious moments like that one between Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire during Saturday's Chicago-Detroit game.


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