Monday, 4 May 2009

Playoffs Are Overtime

An interesting wave has been sent out through the hockey world today upon hearing that several respectable sources are lobbying for changing playoff overtime games from five-on-five to four-on-four after one extra frame. Being a traditionalist, I am shocked at this news. In fact, I was perplexed when it was stated by TSN's Bob McKenzie that the Competition Committee had suggested this option within the last year. What is this world coming to? I want to make this very clear: playoff hockey is special in the NHL. Stop trying to change what makes the game so good.

Look, I wrote about playoff overtime last month. I explained how some of the longest games made for great television and what those moments meant to me. NHL Playoffs are all about the games that creep into the next day with little regard for the next game (or the next day at work for fans). Players play to win that game and that game only. That's all that matters to all 20 guys on each team.

It shocked me today when I read Stu Hackel's piece in the New York Times about the conversation that took place on Montreal radio station The Team 990. It also got some pretty good lip service from Rogers' Sportnet's Mike Brophy who would rather see games end earlier than later.

Bob McKenzie and Mike Brophy both think that having overtime games end early benefits television viewers, most notably on the east coast where the majority of NHL viewers are in the United States. And this is true to a degree. I can't fault either of these two intelligent men for this thought, but here's my opposition to that argument: don't the two teams playing in overtime determine whether or not we, as fans, enjoy overtime?

The Anaheim Ducks are a great playoff team because they trap like the dickens, and use turnovers to generate offence. The problem with overtime trap hockey is that teams rarely try to generate any offence as they wait for the other team to make a mistake. After all, one mistake is all it takes in overtime. And that's why Sunday's game between Detroit and Anaheim will not be remembered as one of the greatest overtime games ever.

The Ducks trap teams to death, as seen in the San Jose series, and the Red Wings bottle up the neutral zone as effectively as anyone. It's boring hockey. It's why no one has ever mentioned the New Jersey Devils or the Minnesota Wild in great playoff overtime games. I cannot argue with its effectiveness as these teams win Stanley Cups (aside from Minnesota), but it is not entertaining hockey.

Going four-on-four will not change how overtime is played. It's precisely why teams are more content with going to the shootout than they are with winning in overtime in the regular season. Teams will still trap, teams will still clog up the neutral zone, teams will still dump-and-change. It doesn't matter if it's five-on-five or three-on-three, players still don't want to be responsible for a mistake in overtime.

I do, however, think that Mike Chen of Kukla's Korner is on to something. Mike is proposing that penalties be called exactly the same way as they are called in the regular season and playoff game first periods. This, my faithful readers, is ingenious.

The NHL introduced tighter regulations to produce more offence in the regular season by giving teams more powerplays. Their reasoning was that more goals will result in a better draw for US audiences because the best players are continually on the ice. Officials were told to enforce the rulebook, and to call the constant interference we were seeing during the late-1990s. And it has worked to increase offence slightly, but in the playoffs, where everything is magnified, you'd see a complete change in how teams play if they knew that referees were no longer "swallowing the whistle".

Overtime hockey is about mistakes. The team that limits their mistakes and capitalizes on their opposition's mistakes is routinely the team that wins in overtime. And penalties are mistakes.

While I'm against referees deciding games with their calls, a penalty is a penalty is a penalty. They still need to be called, and the rulebook doesn't change in overtime. Letting players play is one thing, but some of the stuff that was let go in the Anaheim-Detroit game was ridiculous.

Total number of penalties in three periods of overtime? One. Scott Niedermayer for tripping. There were three interference calls in regulation time. Is the NHL really trying to convince me that as players get more and more fatigued that they don't try to run more interference?

If you believe that, I have some swampland in New Jersey to sell you. Overtime during the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs is five-on-five hockey. For now. Forever.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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