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Thursday, November 2, 2006
Updated: November 3, 4:15 PM ET
The never-ending shootout debate

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

When the Buffalo Sabres were still undefeated and shooting for a league record for the fastest start, the asterisk geeks came out of hiding. While they're not necessarily curmudgeonly, they perhaps are the offspring of those who said if Roger Maris didn't pull it off in 154 games, he deserved the asterisk treatment.

The Sabres won three of their first four games in shootouts, beating Carolina, Montreal and Detroit.

For co-captain Chris Drury, it was akin to pitching in the Little League World Series and trying to get a sneaky curve past hitters from Taiwan who might be old enough to legally drive rental cars back to the team hotel.

If you're Drury, you do what you have to do.

"I didn't think about that point. ... The way to get two points and the rules the way they are, it's nothing that either team can control," Drury said on a league conference call the other day. "So I guess ultimately it's the league's decision."

Yes, it is, and this is one of the decisions the NHL got right.

Eliminating ties was a long-overdue move.

Whether in the era of $5.75 tickets or in the era when season-ticket invoices make the buyer wonder if they come with a turbocharged engine, leather seats, antilock breaks and the premium stereo package, paying customers deserved a definitive outcome, and before 12:15 in the morning.

And doesn't everyone understand it's a contrivance?

Most arguments made against the shootout -- "free-throw contest," blah, blah, blah -- are easily dismissed with a nod and a "...and your point is?" This is neither drawing graffiti on "The Raft of the Medusa" in the Louvre nor insulting the legacy of Mark Messier. And in a sport in which breakaways and the awarding of penalty shots for a hook from behind aren't belittled as being outside the legitimate elements of the tests of skill, it isn't as much of a contrivance as some want to make it.

It decides a regular-season game, not the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals.

And rather than acting surprised when the game gets to the shootout, which some coaches seemed to do last season, the smart ones consider it part of the strategic picture, whether that means devoting more practice time to it or considering the ramifications of selections and order.

It was similar to when the four-on-four overtime system went into effect, and the mind-set of the league seemed to cling to the idea that there was something wrong with pressing in the overtime, even to the point of recklessness, against any team that probably wouldn't wind up competing with you for a playoff spot or position. Then, especially in the more prevalent interconference games, a tie was the same as an overtime loss (one point), but the ingrained reaction was to treat a puck going in your own net with one second left in overtime the same as losing 6-2 in regulation. The league never quite grasped the reality of the four-on-four overtime minus a shootout. Now, there seems to be much more realization that a shootout loss is not as crushing as a regulation loss, but it's not that way across the board all the time.

The only anti-shootout stance that holds water stems from that mentality.

It also comes from football terminology. The three-point stance.

But that quibble predates the shootout, because it goes back to the implementation of that four-on-four overtime in 1999-2000. The loser in overtime being guaranteed a point changed the mathematical reality, almost as if Gary Bettman announced that hockey would switch to a base-8 numeric system.

If it still were two points to the winner and none to the loser, regardless of how that's decided, there would have been 2,460 points available last season.

In the standings, the total was 2,741. That's roughly 9.4 "extra" points per team. Give or take. Both from overtime or the shootout.

Last season, the most graphic example of the shootout's difference-making was in the Pacific Division, where the Stars were 12-1 and the Sharks were 1-7. That 11-point gap accounted for all but two points in the Stars' lead at the end of the regular season.

It would be folly to assume that without a shootout, nothing else would have changed. (That's like when Jones is thrown out stealing second and Smith doubles on the next pitch, the announcer says, "See, Jones would have scored!" Not necessarily. Smith might have gotten a different pitch, and that's just the beginning of the many other variables coming into play the rest of the game.) But, at least in theory, when games could end in ties, the Stars would have had an even 100-point season rather than the more impressive-looking 112-point total.

If any team seems capable of threatening the Red Wings' 131 regular-season points in 1995-96 or the Canadiens' record of 132 in 1976-77, the asterisk argument might come up again.

I'm fine with the way the system works now, but I'm open-minded enough to agree that there's some merit in the argument that if the shootout is considered a legitimate means of deciding a winner, it also should decide a loser.

A loser, as in a pointless night. A loser, as in not needing to translate the two different forms of standings available in newspapers and online. Some differentiate between overtime losses and shootout losses, and some don't.

So, to me, the biggest quibble with the Sabres' streak shouldn't have been with their three victories in the first four games, but with how it didn't end with a pointless night.

A win still means that on a night when you knew what it might come down to, you ended up doing better than the other team -- at something. Regulation, overtime, shootout, rock-paper-scissors.

You do what you have to do.

The Sabres "lost" in the shootout to the Thrashers, the streak was over, they came out and acknowledged the cheers of the fans, yet this came on a night when they still got a point.

In that sense, it was the same as the old "ties-OK system," or when the Islanders desperately pressed in the final minutes against the Colorado Rockies in 1982 and ended up getting a John Tonelli goal with 47 seconds left in the third period to break a 52-year-old league record with their 15th straight victory. A tie when the clock hit all zeroes wasn't good enough to extend the streak; it shouldn't have been that night in Uniondale, and it shouldn't have been the other night in Buffalo.

The peril in the current system could come down to a tacit understanding among friends in a crucial game for teams in different situations in the conference; for example, with one team trying to win a division and the other just trying to sneak in the playoffs, it wouldn't be all bad if it turned out to be a three-point game.

It's all OK, but it's not necessarily out of line to at least acknowledge that when comparing records from the era of two-point games to records in the era of three-point games, there is a difference.

And if the league ponders the next step, going to two points for the win and none for a loss, whether in overtime or the shootout, I wouldn't argue against it, as long as the shootout is lengthened to a minimum of five rounds, making it more "legitimate."

All in all, though, the league has to be given credit for getting this one right.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."