‘Free-for-all’ overtimes will decide playoff spots in parity-laden NHL

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Patrick Kane celebrates his game-winning goal in overtime Tuesday against the Panthers. (AP Photo)

Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is the rare hockey player who enjoys watching other teams play on TV. And even when he’s doing something else, he keeps an eye on the scoreboard, just in case a three-on-three overtime is about to begin.

‘‘I love it; I think it’s awesome,’’ Kane said. ‘‘I sit at home some nights, and if I’m not watching hockey, I’ll check the scores and see what games are going into overtime so I can watch overtime. It’s entertaining for the fans, and it’s fun for the players.’’

There’s no denying the entertainment value of three-on-three overtime, now in its third season. It’s usually full of breathtaking sequences, end-to-end action and endless odd-man rushes.

‘‘As a coach, you don’t mind watching other games,’’ coach Joel Quenneville quipped. ‘‘And you don’t mind watching your own games when you have the puck.’’


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But while three-on-three is preferable to a shootout, it still isn’t really hockey. It’s a total crapshoot in which every fluky bounce or minor mistake leads to a two-on-one the other way. And the exhausting nature of three-on-three play, particularly after 60 minutes of regulation, makes it a breeding ground for such mistakes, as gassed players gut out end-to-end shifts.

The Hawks’ 3-2 victory Tuesday against the Panthers was a perfect example of such craziness. In barely two minutes, each team had a handful of chances to win the game before Artem Anisimov forced a neutral-zone turnover and sprung Kane for a winning breakaway.

‘‘It’s pretty much a free-for-all out there,’’ Kane said. ‘‘You can’t predict what’s going to happen.’’

You can predict this much, however: Those bonus points are going to decide playoff spots. Entering Friday, two points separated the sixth- through 11th-place teams in the Western Conference, with two other teams three more points back. The forced parity the so-called ‘‘loser point’’ creates has the standings incredibly tight, and they’re likely to stay that way for the rest of the season.

The Hawks are 4-5 in extra time this season, and those five lost points might be the difference in the end.

‘‘You’re definitely trying to get the extra point,’’ rookie Alex DeBrincat said. ‘‘It’s so bunched up, and every point matters so much. That just brings that much more desperation to it.’’

There are two ways the NHL could downplay the significance of overtime and make real hockey more important. The current tiebreaker for playoff spots is non-shootout victories. A simple switch to regulation victories would make winning in 60 minutes a priority.

The other way is to use the international points system, in which a regulation victory is worth three points, an overtime or shootout victory two and a loss in overtime or a shootout one. That, too, would add urgency to the third period.

But the NHL loves the forced parity because teams can hang around the playoff picture longer, so it’s not going anywhere.

Coaches have done their best to control the chaotic nature of three-on-three. Teams are more patient now, often circling back into the neutral zone to get a better entry and a better look, knowing it might be the last time they get a chance to touch the puck.

But it still takes only a bit of patchy ice, a minor stumble, a shot off the pipe to send the opponent in the other direction for the game-winner. And that standings point counts just as much as the one that took 60 minutes of actual hockey to decide.

‘‘I don’t know if you think about that at that moment,’’ Kane said. ‘‘But if we [do] think about it that way, maybe play a little bit better during regulation and make sure you’re getting your points that way.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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