Two points to boredom

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

In recent years, the National Hockey League had appeared to be inching gradually toward three-point games.

But now, there is a strong likelihood of a return to two-pointers. And nothing else.

When the NHL finally gets back to work, it will institute a number of rule changes, not the least of which will be shootouts to settle games that remain tied after overtime.

That sounds simple enough. Fans tend to like shootouts and dislike ties, so in commissioner Gary Bettman's Brave New Game, shootouts will come to pass.

But how do you then reward a team for winning a shootout?

One solution seemed to make a lot of sense. Award three points for a win in regulation time. If the game is tied after 60 minutes, then award two points for a win at the end of the night, whether it comes in overtime or a shootout. The losing team gets a one-point reward for having stayed tied through regulation time.

For one thing, that approach would have the advantage of consistency. In every game, three points would be available. How the two teams allot those three points is up to them.

Last year, three points were shared if the game went into overtime, but only two if a team had a lead after 60 minutes.

But the even greater advantage of the three-point-win system is that it encourages coaches to play to win. Right now, too many coaches play not to lose and as a result, a large percentage of NHL games are mind-numbingly boring.

It's such an eminently sensible solution that it should come as no surprise that the NHL is leaning toward rejecting it.

Although Bettman once favoured the three-point concept, sources say he now is leaning strongly toward a two-or-nothing approach.

The winning team will get two points and the loser gets none. That's all. No exceptions.

Granted, that system addresses the concerns over consistency. And it eliminates tie games. But it does absolutely nothing to encourage coaches to open up the game in regulation time. Quite the contrary.

It will even kill the excitement that fans had come to expect from the five minutes of four-on-four overtime.

The overtime periods are a great spectacle because each team knows that it already has earned a point and can now earn another. One point is in the bank.

But if teams are in a position to lose that point, they'll play the overtime the way they played the rest of the game -- defence first and take no chances.

If you look at the weaker teams in the league -- the ones that try to compensate for a lack of talent by stressing defence -- they often have good goaltending.

So here's what will happen under the two-point-must system. Weaker teams will focus on shutting down the opposition. If they can hang on until overtime, they'll do more of the same because if they can't match the opposition's skill at full strength, they definitely can't match it four-on-four.

So they'll grind their way through overtime in the hope that their goalie can steal two points in the shootout.

Bettman reportedly favours this concept over the three-point system because of the game's heritage. A three-point win would skew the records.

But this is a game in need of major change. The kind of people who are concerned about hockey's records are hockey's hard core. They're smart enough to realize that the points accumulated by the 1975-76 Montreal Canadiens cannot be directly compared to the performance of a 2006 team earning three points for a win.

The league is planning a number of major rule changes in the hope of winning back its fans once the owners end their lockout.

But if it also adopts a two-point-must system, those changes are a waste of time. If the coaches still are playing not to lose, none of those changes will matter in the least.


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