Im a max 8 user and I would be surprised if polygon counter was removed.
Are you sure you have clicked "more" on the utilities Tab?
The face count you talk of by pressing 7 is also in max 8 and most previous versions as far as I remember.
Both tools should be in your max version.
I can either hit 7 in a viewport or use polygon counter in the utilities tab, but with polygon counter I can specify tri’s or quads.
But on the offchance they have actually removed the polygon counter utility just add an edit mesh modifier on the top of your modifier stack and hit 7 when you have it selected. As said before editable mesh basically specify’s triangles rather then polygons.
As for the polycount I personally assume it means triangles rather then polygons as its the triangles that generally decide the load on the engine.
As for todays polygon levels in games today, well thats a very open ended question. The hi poly model used for normal map generation may have a ridiculous polycount but the actual base model the normal map is applied to is generally way smaller. But at the end of the day a normal map is just a fancy texture. I quoted 3000-5000 but thats just an approximation, it really depends on what kind of game your making and what assets will be on screen at any one time.