Red Wings' Riley Sheahan soldiers on through goal-scoring slump, but hasn't lost hope

Red Wings forward Riley Sheahan has gone 67 games without a goal this season. "I know I've scored in this league," he says. "I know I can. I don't know what the deal is this year." Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

The Detroit Red Wings' dressing room was almost completely empty. The players had filed out. Detroit coach Jeff Blashill's daily media briefing was over, which concluded most of the interaction between the players, coaches and those covering the team.

Just about then, Riley Sheahan emerged from behind a curtain that separates the dressing room from the hallway to the showers.

You can certainly understand why Sheahan has wanted to keep a low profile lately. If a media member asks to chat with him, it's usually for one reason. The 25-year-old center has gone 67 games without a goal. He recently set the record for the forward with the most shots in a season without a goal; the previous record was held by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Craig Adams in 2009-10.

It's puzzling, too. Sheahan isn't a role player who gets sent out for three minutes a game to engage in the occasional fight. This is a guy who had combined for 27 goals the previous two seasons. He knows his way around the net.

"I know I've scored in this league," he said quietly, a sports drink in his hand. "I know I can. I don't know what the deal is this year."

It's a lonely place, moving up the charts of the longest streaks without a goal. Even the best go through it. Alex Ovechkin recently went 10 games without scoring a goal, and endured his own steady diet of slump questions. Toronto Maple Leafs rookie sensation Auston Matthews started this season with a four-goal game, so when he reaches six or seven games without a goal -- as he did to start March -- there's widespread concern about his well-being.

New York Rangers center Derek Stepan recently snapped a 23-game goalless drought that was starting to get into his head. During his slump, Stepan reached out to former teammate Martin St. Louis for assistance.

"It was tough," Stepan said. "It was not an easy thing to go through. ... You just have to find a way to keep the mindset, 'This is the way it is right now. Keep playing the right way.'"

He and St. Louis talked a lot about process. It took St. Louis 14 games to score his first goal with the Rangers after he was traded by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014.

"He said it felt like a year," Stepan said.

For Sheahan, it hasn't just felt like a year. It has been going on all season. In a reminder that the hockey gods can be cruel sometimes, Stepan ended his drought with a goal on Sheahan's home ice in Detroit.

For now, Sheahan hasn't reached out to his version of St. Louis. He's going at this alone.

"It's kind of a thing I just put behind me and figure out myself," he said. "I'm going to stay on that mindset and try to get out of the slump myself."

If he changes his mind, he doesn't have to look hard for support.

Tyler Wright is Detroit's director of amateur scouting. In 1998-99, Wright went an entire season without a goal in 61 games for the Penguins. On his Hockey-Reference.com page, there's a big zero right before the run of double-digit goal-scoring seasons Wright had for the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

It's been nearly 20 years, and he still hears about his slump -- mostly from his teenage son, who isn't afraid to bring it up when dad is getting on him.

"It weighs on you daily. I can't imagine [what's it like now] with social media," Wright said during a phone conversation. "[Sheahan] thinks about it every moment of the day."

It becomes that obsessive.

Two decades later, Wright can still describe every detail of the goal that ended his drought. It came the following season in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The puck worked its way up the wall to Penguins defenseman Brad Werenka, who fired a wrist shot toward the goal.

Wright deflected it with the upper part of his stick. The puck went in and the play immediately went under review for a high stick.

The hockey gods may be cruel, but they're not that cruel. The goal counted, and Wright's streak was finally over.

"We go into Chicago the next night and I scored again," he said.

Along the way, you start to doubt yourself. So much of a forward's success is built on a foundation of confidence that is built up goal by goal, point by point.

When goals don't come, even when you're doing everything else right, that foundation collapses.

"When you have confidence, it seems like you have all the time in the world with the puck," said Red Wings center Frans Nielsen. "If you don't have it, it seems like you're playing against 10 guys out there."

After going an entire season without a goal, Wright started the next season in the AHL.

One night, after a game for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton against Albany, the legendary Herb Brooks came to chat with Wright. The Penguins had just hired Brooks as their head coach to replace Kevin Constantine.

Brooks told Wright to pack his bags. He was heading back to the NHL -- and it turned out to be a long-term call-up. Wright was back up for the rest of the season. Brooks immediately removed any pressure on Wright to score by letting him know he was there for the long haul, regardless.

Once Wright returned to Pittsburgh, Brooks spent practices pumping up Wright's confidence. Wright had once scored 41 goals for Swift Current, also affectionately called Speedy Creek, in the Western Hockey League.

"Every day I went to the rink [in Pittsburgh] and Herb Brooks would say to me, 'I want you to play like you did in Speedy Creek,'" Wright said. "Every day, I'd come to the rink, and think, 'Just like Speedy Creek!'"

Wright heard it enough that he started to believe. He ended up breaking the drought and scored 12 goals in 50 games that year.

Years later, Wright would learn that Brooks had never seen him play even once in Speedy Creek. It was all an attempt to get him going.

"It made the world of difference in my career," Wright said. "It's a genius part of coaching. Herb Brooks, God bless him."

The scoreless games can pile up quickly. Adams went a full 82 games without scoring a goal for the Penguins in 2009-10.

Along the way, he hit a few posts and crossbars. Next thing he knew, the regular season was over and he had a zero next to his name on the stats page.

"As the year drags on, it starts to weigh on you," Adams said. "It definitely bothered me."

Adams scored in the first game of the playoffs that spring, ending his drought against the Ottawa Senators.

"It was a backhander, top shelf," Adams said. "It was actually a pretty nice goal. I didn't score too many. I can remember most of them."

That's about all Adams remembers about the experience.

"It didn't scar me for life," he said, with a laugh.

And perhaps that's the message for Sheahan.

His goal will come. This won't define him. He plays too honest a game for the goals not to arrive. He's not afraid to go to the net or the dirty areas of the ice.

That the Red Wings received calls about Sheahan at the trade deadline despite his slump says everything you need to know about how he's viewed around the league.

That's been part of the message from his coach. When they talk, Blashill reminds him he's going to play in the NHL for a long time. A big center who can match up against Ryan Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron will always have a job in the NHL.

But still, it would feel good to get one. Ideally, before the long summer in Detroit kicks in.