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Snoring down the stretch

NEW YORK -- Is this really an exciting race for the NHL's final playoff spots? Or more like the equivalent of a bunch of inebriated night owls stumbling to the one and only cab available to take them 20 or so blocks home?

This thought occurred to me in, surprise, a New York City bar late Thursday while monitoring the last NHL game of the night -- and sipping Diet Coke, wink wink.

The Nashville Predators played the San Jose Sharks and the match ended in what felt like the NHL's 23,000th three-point game of the last month. As I watched, the inevitable conclusion became obvious in the third period, as it has in too many games of late: these two teams were playing it safe -- too safe -- while trying to get to overtime and put at least one point in the bank.

Sure enough, the Preds and Sharks just went through the motions in the last 15 minutes or so, chipping the puck out, dumping it in, and getting a quick change, with neither team willing to really go for it in regulation. The game ultimately went to the shootout, where the Sharks got a 2-1 win and the additional point.

Here's what was really bothersome about this game and too many others since the shootout was integrated into the NHL in 2005: the Sharks put 28 shots on net in the first two periods, but didn't score a goal. Then they got one in the first minute of the third. But how many shots did they have on net for that entire period?

Four.

The Sharks essentially tanked it, dumping-and-changing, milking the clock to get to OT and that all-important point that would inch them closer to the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings. Their skills-contest extra point was gravy. Good for them.

But it was boring hockey, and as much as I've tried to defend the shootout as a good innovation in response to the old NHL's way of finishing games in a tie, it's getting tougher to justify now.

"If a team on the bubble is tied in the third period, forget it, it's going to be a 3-point game," one GM grumbled to me the other night. "All you see in the paper in the box score at the end of the year now is SO to every game."

The shootout was intended to be something of a last resort for teams at the end of a thoroughly hard-fought match, but too often games are only real battles for a period or two. The rest becomes a "Let's not get too risky here or we might lose that OT/shootout point" snoozefest.

I covered Colorado vs. New Jersey at the Prudential Center in Newark on Thursday night, and it was kind of the same story. The Avalanche, on the bubble and trying to cling to eighth place in the West, sat back and played the "loser's point" type of game in the third period, dumping-and-changing and getting all of seven shots on legendary Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. Even Brodeur admitted after his team's 1-0 shoout victory, "It's not like (Colorado's Jean-Sebastien Giguere and I) had to be great out there tonight."

Listen, if I were an NHL coach I'd probably be dumping-and-changing with the rest of them. In a league where teams' profits or losses are largely determined by making the playoffs -- not to mention the job security of coaches -- they are just trying to get to the postseason any way they can. You can't blame them for wanting to shut things down at the first sign of a potential loser's point.

Unfortunately, the end result has been too many games like Colorado-New Jersey and Nashville-San Jose. Maybe it's time to examine a different point structure for NHL games.

In the NBA, 3-pointers are celebrated by hands thrown in the air. In the NHL, they too often inspire a sleepy shrug.

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