There’s a moment in nearly every third period of every close game, usually about halfway through but sometimes even earlier, when frantic suddenly becomes tedious, when aggression yields to passivity, when high-octane becomes low-key.
Breakouts are slower. Defense is tighter. Point-men stop pinching. High-skill forwards make only low-risk passes. Both teams are playing for overtime, and it’s a strategy that renders too many third periods dull when they should be dramatic.
“Maybe not early in the third, but definitely as the game wears on and you get in the last 10 minutes of the third, it’s impossible not to think that, ‘Hey, we’ll take the point and take our chances in overtime,’” said San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. “I think everybody does that.”
The so-called “loser point” — the standings point given to teams that lose in overtime or shootouts, has created unprecedented parity in the league. Barely two weeks before the March 1 trade deadline, all 16 Eastern Conference teams are either in a playoff spot or within seven points of one. And 12 of the 14 Western Conference teams were in, or within six points.
It’s created such a logjam in the standings that general managers can’t even make trades, because of the 30 teams in the NHL, only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche are truly sellers at this point.
Every point is so valuable, that in a close game, few teams are willing to risk getting none in order to chase two in regulation. That’s especially true in inter-conference games, when the opponent picking up a point doesn’t do any harm.
Even Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, whose go-to catch-phrase is, “Nobody likes winning more than me,” does it. He doesn’t call it “playing for overtime,” but calls it “being smart.” He insisted the Hawks don’t change their style of play based on period or conference alignment, but the cautious third-period performances speak for themselves.
“With our team, sometimes you find yourself in those last 10-15 minutes of games in the third period, you’re tied or you’re down a goal or you’re up a goal, I think you want to make sure you’re getting one point in those games, right?” Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. “Then see what happens in overtime. We have some guys that can perform well in overtime or a shootout, whatever it may be.”
The solution — one that has been bandied about in hockey circles for years — is to go to the international point system, which gives out three points for a regulation win, two for an overtime or shootout win, one for an overtime or shootout loss, and none for a regulation loss. The idea is to incentivize winning in regulation — to make it worthwhile to play a more entertaining, riskier brand of hockey in the third period.
In a three-point system, the Hawks would be 11 points behind the Wild (111 to 100), with Nashville 14 points behind the Hawks and St. Louis one more point out. Teams such as Winnipeg and Dallas (74 points each) would be much farther out of the playoff picture, and the trade market likely would be open for business with more spread-out standings. But Hawks general manager Stan Bowman — who, like most of the younger generation of the NHL, didn’t sound opposed to the idea — wasn’t so sure it would make that much of a difference.
After all, a regulation win over a division opponent would be a six-point swing.
“The other side of it, which nobody really talks about, is if you have three points, you can make up a lot of ground,” Bowman said. “They always talk about how it’s going to separate the teams, but you can make up ground quicker. If you win seven games in a row in regulation, that’s a lot better than seven games in a row in overtime. I think it would give teams a hope that you could get hot. There would be more separation, but there also would be hope. Right now, it’s just so hard to make up ground on anybody. Because every night, you can win five in a row and really not move up because other teams are getting points when they’re losing.”
As for the effect it would have on NHL history, the record book has long been warped by the elimination of ties, and by expanding the season from 76 to 84 games, then back to 82.
More separation in the standings, more chance for wild swings in playoff races, and more excitement in third periods of close games. It all seems like a no-brainer. But the league has shown little interest in making such a change, because it’s obviously good for business to have so many teams mathematically alive this late in the season, and it’s obviously good for coaches’ job stability to stay in the hunt during a mediocre season.
But it’s a faux parity, not a genuine one.
“When it got brought up a few years ago, I initially wasn’t a fan,” DeBoer said. “But I’m becoming more and more a fan of it. I really like the parity that the two-point system has, where nobody’s really out of it. And having coached some teams that legitimately should have been out of it, it was nice to be able to walk in your room and say, ‘Hey we’re only three or four points out,’ when really, you’ve got six teams to climb over. I like that part of it. But on the flip side, I think there should be a bigger reward for winning and winning in regulation. Because typically the best teams can do that. And they should be rewarded for that.”