THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The NHL emerged from the lockout with a new look, including a bold new way to determine a winner for each regular-season game.
Plenty of skepticism from the purist wing of the sport surrounded the introduction of the shootout. Grumbling about using a skills competition — akin to a home run derby after 10 innings of a tied baseball game — to settle the score after 65 minutes probably will never go away.
The shootout, though, has won over some of the initial doubters. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire this summer, the opportunity exists to make another round of significant rule changes, but commissioner Gary Bettman made it sound as if this tiebreaker is here to stay.
"All the research that we do on a regular basis tells us overwhelmingly our fans like the shootout," Bettman said glowingly during all-star weekend in Ottawa. "We’re looking at numbers in the 70 and 80 per cent approval range, which on any question is an extraordinarily high number. Anecdotally, I try to go to a game at least once in every building, and when you see an overtime game that goes to the shootout, the reaction in the building is sensational. Everybody’s on their feet."
The seeds for the shootout were sewn eight years ago, when the general managers gathered at a resort just outside Las Vegas and, well, rolled the dice on some radical alterations. After the entire 2004-05 season was cancelled during the labour dispute, the fans needed to be won back. The tiebreaker was one of those spices the NHL added to the recipe for regular-season intrigue to make the game exciting enough for casual or bitter fans to come to the arena again.
Putting aside the concern about cheapening the outcome with a few fancy one-on-one drills, the dislike for draws is about unanimous.
"People want to see somebody win. They want to walk away without an empty feeling like, ‘Wow, that was a really good tie tonight,"’ said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, whose team has played in 10 shootouts this season, tied for most in the NHL. "You want to win and you don’t want to lose, but when you lose it makes the wins that much better. That’s what we’re here for: to win hockey games."
One potential downside is the creation of artificial parity, since one point is awarded to the loser in either an overtime or shootout game.
According to research by STATS LLC, 164 of 735 games this season have been tied after three periods. That means 22.3 per cent of the time there are three points awarded in a game instead of two. The chase for playoff spots gets thickened this way, but teams with essentially losing records can wind up looking better in the standings than they are.
Of those 164 tie games, 95 of them have been decided by a shootout. That’s nearly 58 per cent, a slight uptick from the 56 per cent over the lifespan of the tiebreaker.
Wild season-ticket holder Greg Hoban called himself one of the converts.
Raised in Chicago as a Blackhawks fan, he carries a strong sense of the game’s traditions. But he has warmed to the concept after experiencing the excitement in the building when two teams trade breakaway shots and the goalies try to stop them. There’s a score on roughly one-third of the attempts.
"Initially I thought it was just kind of a gimmick," Hoban said. "I thought, ‘Boy, for the purity of the game this is probably not a good thing.’ But I think having watched it for a number of years now it’s turned out to what they thought it would. It’s part of the game now."
Elite professional athletes thrive on competition, so any piece of the game that drives up the adrenaline is going to be appreciated at least on one level.
"It’s exciting, and people want to see that. They want to see one-on-one action," Anaheim Ducks right wing Corey Perry said. "I don’t mind it. You’ve got your best players out there taking shots and trying to win for your team. Guys like that in this game. They want that pressure."
Hoban said he senses the anticipating building midway through the third period when the possibility of overtime is clear. As a bonus for the diehards truly fixated on the action with full understanding of every shift change and every offside call, the distractions are reduced.
"Our seats are right on the aisle, and when people don’t have the gumption to stick around they all jump up and go to the aisles. It’s hard to see half the ice," Hoban said. "If you look around in a tie situation or when people are hoping the home team gets to a tie, you see people glued to their seats."
They sure like the shootout in Colorado.
The Avalanche are 7-0 this season in those situations and have won 10 straight tiebreakers, one short of the NHL record for consecutive shootout wins set by the Dallas Stars during the 2005-06 season.
"A lot of fans probably appreciate it," Colorado right wing Milan Hejduk said. "Somebody’s a winner. You don’t have a tie like in soccer. I think it’s a nice way."
.The Avalanche are 44-23 all-time in shootouts, the best winning percentage in the NHL. The New Jersey Devils (50-27) are next. At the bottom of the list are the Philadelphia Flyers (20-37) and Florida Panthers (27-50). Jussi Jokinen’s 30 goals are the most over a career, with Radim Vrbata and Pavel Datsyuk next at 28.
If polled, coaches and players likely wouldn’t approve the shootout at a rate as high as the fans.
"I have mixed feelings about it," Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price said. "The shootout is very random, because it’s not really involving the whole team. I think that’s probably the most difficult thing, so if you have a core group of guys that aren’t doing well in the shootout, then there’s a lot of blame on certain people. But it is better than having nobody win the game. I think at the end of the day you’re trying to sell tickets and being able to give a result to somebody is probably pretty good."
"I think for the fans it’s pretty interesting and they enjoy it, but I think the overtime, 4-on-4, it’s better to end that way. I’m not a big fan of the shootout, but it is what it is," New York Rangers star Marian Gaborik said.
Gaborik doesn’t mind it when the Rangers win, though. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is 39-27 in his career, the most shootout victories in the league. His winning percentage among those who’ve seen 100 or more shots in the shootout is fourth all-time.
The feeling, ultimately, is like that of any other sport or game: fun when you win and not so much when you lose.
"I don’t want to jinx it, but overall I think when Hank is in the net we have a better chance to win the game than the opposition," Gaborik said.
Not every player buys the injustice argument, either.
"You know what? That’s part of the game, too. Goaltenders have stolen games since the game began. So it’s just the way it is," said Minnesota centre Matt Cullen, who is tied for third in the NHL this season with five shootout goals.