GRAND RAPIDS — After showing off a shot that will have NHL goalies on their heels for years to come, Teemu Pulkkinen is back in the minors working to round out a game that will keep him in Detroit longer next time.
Within hours after scoring his first NHL with a blistering one-timer that helped the Red Wings dispatch the pesky Minnesota Wild, Pulkkinen found himself on I-96, driving back to Grand Rapids to join his Griffins teammates for a game Wednesday night.
He arrived in the early morning hours to get a short night’s sleep before playing his fourth game in five nights. Even 23-year-old legs can tire a bit, so it was not a surprise when Pulkkinen’s eight-game American Hockey League goal-scoring streak came to end.
"No excuses," Pulkkinen said before Friday’s AHL game against visiting Utica (New York) at Van Andel Arena. "I played bad."
But he played well enough in his six-game stint with the Wings to impress his coaches and the front-office brass in Detroit. Not to mention opposition goaltenders.
"He can score on any goalie in the world," Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill said.
In other words, the Finnish sniper owns a high-demand skill you can’t teach. But by his own admission, he’s still in a bit of a learning curve regarding other parts of the North American style of play.
The Wings want him to play a more north-south game that involves quick stops and starts at both ends of the ice. He’s still prone to the wide, sweeping turns players are accustomed to taking on the larger, international ice surface.
"The way you play in Europe, that’s not going to happen here," Pulkkinen said, admitting that he has to get better finding the soft spots to set up for his shot in the offensive zone — which is much harder to do in the NHL.
"The guys are better there, and the Ds (defensemen) are a lot better," he said. "They know where to go, and they know how to block shots, things like that. It’s harder to find the open spot, and when you get the puck, you have to shoot it."
Though Pulkkinen scored just once in his brief NHL stint, Blashill said Pulkkinen acquitted himself nicely.
"I thought he did some good things," Blashill said. "There are some things he has to get better at, but his skills-set is NHL caliber."
Like most young players, Pulkkinen can improve his play without the puck.
"All players have to earn the trust of their coach," Blashill said, "and usually that is done in the defensive end."
So Pulkkinen was back at work on his game Friday, and he’ll appear in the AHL All-Star Game on Monday at Utica, joining the best in what he calls pretty good league.
"Everybody things it’s easier to play here, but this league is hard, too," he said. "There’s lots of young guys and everybody wants to make it to the NHL. They play hard."
That said, he admitted it felt good to be welcomed home by his Grand Rapids teammates, who helped him score a team-leading 20 goals and 39 points in 33 games before Detroit called him up. In his absence, he fell from second to fourth in league scoring. As a rookie last year, the native of Vantaa, Finland, led the Griffins with 59 points, including 31 goals. Detroit’s fourth-round pick (111th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has scored eight goals among 16 points in 24 post-season games.
"It was good to be back and start to play like I want to play hockey," he said. "I have to keep working hard, improve my game on offense and defense."
After a taking a regular shift in Detroit for a half-dozen games, however, he now also has a pretty good feeling about his future.
And he makes his declaration with the same authority he shows when he winds up to shoot the puck: "I know now I can play in the NHL."