The Philadelphia Flyers made it into the playoffs because they beat the Rangers in the last game of the season in a post game breakaway competition. Claude Giroux managed to score on New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist to put his team up 2-1 in the shootout. Olli Jokinen then failed to score on Flyer goalie Brian Boucher Boucher.
So a moment that has as little to do with winning a hockey game as winning one particular face-off resulted in the Flyers winning a game and getting into the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the unlikely event that the Flyers win the Stanley Cup it could be said that they don’t deserve to be there. The playoff revenue they’re about to reap is just a lucky bonus.
The institution of first overtime and then the shootout to decide tied games in the NHL is another of many factors that have helped trivialize the NHL regular season. The point of playing those 82 games is to sift the wheat from the chaff and produce a tournament with 16 of the league's best teams in it.
This win by Philadelphia in a shootout highlights a problem that’s been going on for years now. The shootout and overtime have dumped an extra 280 odd points into the league's records. It’s almost impossible in this NHL to be under .500. There are only seven sub .500 teams in the 30 team NHL now. A team’s record, because of all these bonus points for four on four play and breakaways, actually tells you very little about how good or bad they are.
The Phoenix Coyotes have had a great year. They went 50-25-7 earning 107 points and they have a stellar .652 winning percentage. They play in the tougher western conference and yet they have the fourth best record in the league behind only Washington, San Jose, and Chicago. Are they the fourth best team in the league? Of course not!
A closer examination of Phoenix’s record reveals that they’ve been in 26 overtime games. Their record in those games is 19-7. They have the best winning percentage after regulation in the league and have earned an extra 19 points in overtime and shootout, four more than the next best team.
When you look at the records of all the teams at the end of 60 minutes, Phoenix suddenly has a record of 31-25-26 giving them 88 points and a more reasonable .537 win percentage. They would have finished in fifth in the west with this record, behind surprise, surprise, the Detroit Red Wings. Their .537 record would put them eighth overall in the league which is a much more accurate reading of their quality as a hockey team. Instead of making it in to the playoffs by a whopping 17 points, Phoenix would have snuck in by three.
If the NHL still had ties, the playoff teams would have been much different in the east. The two horrible teams in the Northeast division, Montreal and Boston, would have missed the playoffs. The extra 15 and 14 points, respectively, they’ve earned after the end of sixty minutes pushed them into the playoffs past teams that were better than them at, gasp, playing five on five hockey. When their winning percentages are examined with all the overtime games counted as ties, Boston has a poor .470, and Montreal has a horrible .445. Getting in to the playoffs with a .445 win percentage has me flashing back to the 80’s, and it’s not pretty.
The top four teams in the east would still be the same, but the Rangers would have finished fifth nosing out Ottawa by virtue of one more win. Philadelphia still would have made the playoffs, one point behind New York and Ottawa, but they’d have a five point cushion over eighth place Atlanta. Boston would have tied Atlanta in points, but lost the playoff spot because Atlanta has four extra wins in regulation. Atlanta was a better five on five hockey team than Montreal and Boston this year. They deserved to make the playoffs as did Philadelphia and New York.
In the west the right teams made the playoffs, but the seeding now makes a lot more sense. The seeding currently is San Jose 1, Chicago 2, Vancouver 3, Phoenix 4, Detroit 5, Los Angeles 6, Nashville 7, and Colorado 8. In a world without regular season overtime or shootouts, the match-ups end up as San Jose 1 vs. Nashville 8, Chicago 2 vs. LA 7, Vancouver 3 vs. Colorado 6, and Detroit 4 vs. Phoenix 5. The Flames, instead of being a horrible disaster, would be the only above .500 team to miss the playoffs, and that by a point to Nashville. Suddenly Sutter doesn’t look like quite the imbecile I’ve painted him as.
Worst teams in the west are still Minnesota, Columbus, and Edmonton, but in the east it’s Florida, Toronto, and the Islanders. The first five lottery teams would be Edmonton, NYI, Toronto (Boston), and Tampa Bay. The Montreal Canadiens would be the seventh worst team in the league. That’s a heck of a better draft pick than fourteenth.
In the east, Montreal got 15 extra points after regulation while the Rangers managed only four. In the west Phoenix got an additional 19 points and Columbus and Calgary got five.
The NHL’s use of a skills competition to decide the outcome of regular season hockey games diminishes the meaning of the regular records and obfuscates how good or bad the various NHL teams are at playing hockey. The unbalanced schedule and unfair travel is bad enough. Rewarding teams for keeping a designated breakaway artist in the line-up is ludicrous.
A tie at the Masters is not decided by closest to the pin on the next hole. When a baseball game is tied (unless Selig is present) they play until there’s a winner. They don’t break into a home run hitting contest. Tie games in basketball aren’t settled with a dunk off.
All these sports decide winners in the case of a tie by playing basketball or baseball or golf. They play the game to see who is best at the game. Only hockey believes the proper way to decide a hockey game is with four on four shinny or a breakaway competition. It’s not fair, it’s not just, and it doesn’t separate out the good from the bad. The whole point of having a regular season is to separate out the good from the bad. If the regular season is really just some sort of pointless exhibition why are they charging those prices?
This year the Rangers and Atlanta got screwed. Next year it could be your team. The NHL needs to get rid of shootout. If they feel the need to get rid of ties then play hockey until someone wins. If they can’t handle that logistically then live with the ties. The original six was fine with them for over 20 years and a bigger NHL lived with them for more than a decade. A tie, despite what they'll tell you, is better than the mess they've made of the regular season records.