Let's be frank. The playoff races lacked drama this year. I blame too many three-point games. They cause too much head-scratching by fans over whether a bubble team actually has a shot to make it. Nobody wants to feel like they're back in Algebra II class again, trying to figure out if Team X loses -- but gets a point in overtime or a shootout -- do you have to root for Team Y to lose in regulation?
Entering Thursday night, fans of the team in my backyard, the Colorado Avalanche, had this as their playoff scenario: they had to win both of their remaining games -- probably in regulation, because the first tiebreaker for playoff entry is wins in regulation and overtime, NOT INCLUDING shootout victories. If teams are tied in points and regulation/OT wins, then it becomes head-to-head record. If that's tied, it comes down to goals-for and against. If that's tied, well, forget it. Who cares anymore?
All playoff spots were clinched on Thursday night, so we get a final Saturday of mostly meaningless hockey. As we noted in this space a few weeks ago, the three-point system has made it a little too confusing to figure out who gets in during the last days -- and it's also created the problem of teams taking it too easily with a lead in the third period.
So while we wait for the postseason to begin, here are some questions from real fans:
LOL! The Daterjinx! That said, if the Rangers win the Presidents' Trophy, would they not be deserving of the No. 1 ranking at the end of the year? (Not that I want you to do that because the jinx will get them bounced out of the playoffs in the first round.) Earlier this season, you made a case for the Predators, saying the Western Conference only had one weak team and the East had three or four. I don't buy it. With the salary cap, the NHL is so balanced and competitive you simply cannot take a night off lest you lose 5-1 to the Islanders or Hurricanes. Love your rankings and look forward to them every week, but would love to see the Blueshirts ranked No. 2 in your year-end and then hoist the Cup in June! -- Timothy, Barkhamsted, CT
The Daterjinx (TM) was pretty powerful this season, Timothy, I must admit, at least when it came to the Power Rankings. Remember when I had Minnesota No. 1? The Rangers, Penguins, Canucks, and Bruins also took turns going right into the tank after I called them the best in the league. I can't really explain it.
Sometimes I have a kind of spooky jinxing ability. It's been that way my whole life. Here's the thing: I get a lot of stuff right, too, when predicting things far in advance. Last year for this site, I picked the Bruins and Canucks to be in the Cup final before the playoffs started. I picked a huge underdog (Edmonton) to beat the high-powered Avalanche in seven in the first round of the 1998 playoffs, and it happened. But it seems every time I predict something in the moment, or make a comment like, "Boy, I really think Team X is going to hold on and win here," the exact opposite happens. I'm a great reverse-jinxer too. If I want a team to win a game -- I mean, really, really win -- all I have to do is make a bet against it and/or say something really public that it won't win. Then it will.
I lost probably a few hundred dollars as a teenager (when I had a job) betting against my teams. It was a fool-proof system. If they won, it cost me some money, but, hey, my teams won! If they lost, well, at least I got some money. Win-lose, lose-win, either way I get something. The more money I wagered, and the more it might hurt my wallet, the bigger the chance of my team winning to spite me.
Case in point: 1984 NBA Finals, Celtics-Lakers. I've never before or since wanted a team of mine (the Celts) to win anything so much in my life. So I bet my sort of neutral-fan buddy, Lincoln, $100 that the Lakers would win the series -- which in 1984, with me making $4 an hour as a fry cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken in West Lebanon, N.H., was A LOT of money. Long story short: Game 7 in Boston. I'm too afraid to watch at my other buddy's place as planned, so I drive there but sit in my Volkswagen bug, in the dark parking lot. Don't want to look suspicious, so I gather my 6'-5" frame, cramp into the backseat, and lie down. Every few minutes, I'd dare flick the Blaupunkt radio on, catch the score, and turn it right back off. Celtics win that way.
I happily paid Linc the C-note a couple days later.
So what I'm trying to say is: I've got to make someone No. 1 when my final Power Rankings come out. Don't worry too much if it's your team. OK, worry...maybe just a little. But what really will matter is my Cup final prediction. I get those right sometimes at least. Could the Rangers be my pick out of the East? Yeah. But don't worry Blueshirt fans. I won't put any money on them.
What are your thoughts on the Panthers finally getting into the playoffs, even though they kind of backed in? -- Rick, Sunrise, Fla.
After 12 long years, who cares how they got in? Yeah, Rick, they kind of beep-beep-beeped their way to, clinching a spot on Thursday night despite losing to Washington and thereby keeping alive the possibility that they could fall from the third seed to eighth with a loss in regulation and a Washington win in their last games. But you know what? All those early regular-season victories make it so that you can afford to back in at the end. That's why every one of the 82 matters. So I salute the long-suffering fans of Florida and say, "Welcome back to the playoffs."
I'm thinking of a guy named Joe who used to run a great little place called The Florida Tap Room, right by the water in Fort Lauderdale. I've still got a big blue stein bearing the place's name in my cupboard. Joe was a serious hockey fan, originally from Pittsburgh, but he'd adopted the Panthers and he talked the ears off me and my buddy when we dropped in one night. The place isn't there anymore, but I'm sure Joe made a toast to the Panthers somewhere on Thursday night. Come to think of it, I'm going to get out that mug in a bit and make one for them, too.
I have minimal problems with the 4-on-4 in OT to decide a game. It at least resembles hockey. The shootout is a gimmick that should be done away with. I hate it in soccer, and I hate that Olympic elimination games are sometimes resolved by it. SHOOTOUTS are not REAL hockey. The presence of the shootout has resulted in the proliferation of "loser points" and the behavior that you protest against in your column. But rather than corrupt the standings even more by making each game a three-pointer by design -- (3 for regulation win, 2 for OT or S/O win, 1 for OT or SO loss) -- just go back to a tie if a regular season game is not won in regulation or OT. -- Rob K., Victoria, B.C.
You and about a thousand other people sent emails just like this, Rob, in response to my "three-point games are taking the drama out of things" column a few weeks ago. But let's say this much for the NHL: no three-point games occur in the playoffs. That makes them so much better than soccer's, in my opinion. At least the World Cup Final should be a "play all night if you have to, but we're getting a real goal to settle this" format. Shootouts to decide a huge playoff game are TERRIBLE. And it seems like that's how they all finish, too. Sudden-death playoff hockey is the best, and no doubt we'll have a few such games coming up shortly.
As far as changing the points system, I don't think it's going to happen any time real soon. The league believes -- and may be right -- that the majority of hockey fans like the shootout, and the points system in general. I hate being one of those hockey columnists who is always nitpicking about the game, because I think it's great. But, yes, I believe the points system has gotten a little too confusing and lends itself to too much passive-aggressive play by teams, depending on the scoreboard/standings.
I still detest the shootout as a disrespect of hockey, but there might be one way to make it slightly more palatable: Station a defensive player behind the far blue line. On signal, both the offensive and defensive player can move anywhere on the ice. The offensive player will have a head start, but not much. Play will stop either when the offensive player scores or a defensive player (including goaltender) gains control of the puck.
I don't like the penalty shot, either. Putting a second defensive player on the ice, behind the offensive player, would more closely model the actual situation for a penalty shot. And it would be more interesting to watch. (I still think, though, the the whole concept of a shootout should be thrown in the trash where it belongs.)-- John, Detroit
At first I thought "No way, it's too complicated," but after a couple of minutes, John, I thought it wasn't such a bad idea. Here's the problem though: what happens when the defensive player commits an obvious penalty on the offensive player? What do you do then? Too many potential grumblings about calls/non-calls for this to go into effect. The present shootout system is clean and efficient in that sense, at least.
I'm a Sabres fan who really was excited about this season. All that money spent over the summer really made us think, "We're a big-market team now. This is the year." What made it really awful was we played great down the stretch, looked like we were getting in the playoffs, that it still might happen, and then we kind of choked in the last few games. Why do the hockey gods hate us in Buffalo? -- Reg, Amherst, NY
You have my sympathies, Reg. There is nothing more annoying than being a fan of a team that should have been really good, but wasn't. Yeah, the Sabres made a nice little charge for a while, but they still missed the playoffs despite having the league's second-highest payroll (according to the estimable capgeek.com).
I'm not one who likes to point fingers at the coach, especially in hockey when there are so many variables and such a thin line between success and failure. But you have to wonder if the Sabres maybe have gone long enough with Lindy Ruff behind the bench. He's been there since 1997. Yeah, there were injuries, but every team has injuries. The Sabres got a really bad year from Ville Leino, who signed a big contract last summer. He had just seven goals in his first 69 games. Brad Boyes was a bust this season, too, and Cody Hodgson never seemed to really get it going after coming over from Vancouver.
It's going to be a long and painful summer for the Sabres. They should be playing beyond this weekend. But hang in there, Reg. It's just a game.