The Shootout: From Boy to Man

Now in its fifth year, the penalty shot contest is here to stay

11.10.2009
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One of the most famous shootouts in hockey history: Czech netminder Dominik Hasek stops all five Canadian attempts in the semi-final victory at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano. Photo: IIHF Archives

The tie hockey game is a thing of the past. Like the typewriter, rotary-dial telephone, and road map you used to keep in the glove compartment of your car, it has been replaced by the shootout, computer, cell phone, and GPS.

The rules of shootout engagement, however, have changed at different rates in the NHL and international game. The IIHF first instituted the shootout for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, and the first game to require the new method was Canada-Germany in the quarterfinals. Canada advanced to the semis on an Eric Lindros goal in the best-of-five shot contest, but cries across Canada criticized the format for being nothing more than a lottery. The cries were renewed after Canada lost a gold medal to Sweden on penalty shots at the 1994 Olympics.

Indeed, before various football (soccer) federations in Europe adopted the shootout starting in 1970, some games were actually decided by a coin toss because replaying a 90-minute game was sometimes impossible and unlimited overtime a very un-football-like solution.

Anyone who remembers hockey’s historic Canada-Soviet Union showdown at the 1987 Canada Cup – often called the best three hockey games ever played – would be disgusted by the thoughts of those games being decided penalty shots.

Still, North America took notice of the IIHF decision in 1992, and while the NHL ignored the “gimmick” in the name of tradition, the AHL, as well as leagues in Europe, decided to give it a try to spruce up the excitement level at a time when obstruction was on the rise and scoring in decline.

The lockout was the last straw for the NHL, though. After a year without hockey, it believed it needed to return with a big bang, so starting with the 2005-06 season the league instituted a best-of-three shootout to decide all games still tied after the regular season five-minute overtime. Unlimited, sudden-death overtime, the lynchpin to the Stanley Cup playoffs, was not tampered with.

The final change came in 2006-07 when the IIHF adopted the three-point system for all games, meaning overtime and a shootout (if necessary) would decide all pre-playoff round games. At that point, the tie was dead no matter where you lived and no matter what level of world-class quality you watched.

In the NHL, players, coaches, and fans have come to realize the importance of the competition. Remember in the first year how casual the shootout was? Some players took their shot without a helmet; others put their helmet on backwards. Some players tried trick moves that looked amazing but had little chance of resulting in a goal. There was laughing at the benches, a casual atmosphere throughout the arena. Not any more.

When was the last time you saw any trickery in a shootout? Everyone now realizes the extra points are critical in the standings. Every shot counts; every shot a potentially decisive moment in a team’s playoff fortunes. It’s all business now.

While the shootout is here to stay, its initial purpose has not necessarily been served. Logic varied from the NHL to the IIHF on why to use it. In the NHL, the feeling was that the five-minute OT was getting boring and fans hated to go home after watching teams skate to a tie. In the IIHF, the feeling was that by awarding three points for a regulation win and only two for an OT or SO win, teams would play harder to decide the game in 60 minutes.

In the NHL, there has been a quite incredible consistency in the first four years of the shootout. About 22 per cent of all games go to overtime (from 2005-06 to 2008-09 the numbers are 22.8, 22.8, 22.1, 22.9), and about 57 percent of those go to a shootout (51.6, 58.4, 57.4, 56.4). Shooters scored about 33 per cent of the time (33.64, 32.76, 32.51, 33.71). This suggests the shootout, while guaranteeing a victor every night, is somewhat predictable and hasn’t phased out the overtime at all. It also suggests that players and goalies adjust in perfect ratio to each other such that the rate of scoring success remains unchanged.

One statistic, however, reveals a weakness in the current shootout rules. When the NHL started the shots format, it went to a best-of-three system instead of best-of-five which the IIHF had used since 1992. When the IIHF went to three-point games, it followed suit. Yet, statistics reveal that in every season and at every tournament the average number of shots has been greater than six.

This means the best-of-three format doesn’t decide a majority of the games. Worse, the team that scores the first goal wins 80 per cent of the shootouts (80.00 in 2005-06, then 80.49, 81.41, 80.50), suggesting there is a predictability to shootouts now that people were complaining only a few years ago for the five-minute overtime period. Just as a team that leads after two periods wins the vast majority of 60-minute games, the first team to score in the shootout also is almost guaranteed the win.

It’s clear the tie is a dinosaur in hockey, and it’s clear fans love the contest even though it has no relation to the 65 minutes of five-on-five hockey that have preceded it. But what is also clear is that best-of-five shots is a more dramatic, more conclusive method of play. And how long does it take to execute three or four more shots? Two minutes? After two and a half hours of play, another two minutes isn’t such a big deal. Winning the game is.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

The opinions in this column are solely attributed to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the IIHF.


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