Friday, April 06, 2007

When a loss isn't a loss

It’s come down to this: April 7, 2007: the Montreal Canadiens at the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs trail Montreal by one point for the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference, with a chance to leapfrog Montreal with a victory in both teams’ final game of the season. The New York Islanders still have an outside shot at the playoffs with a Leaf victory and two Islander wins, but Saturday’s game should determine who gets into the post-season. Saturday’s contest should provide one of- if not the- most thrilling Canadiens/Leafs match since the Original Six era, but the game carries a bit of a stench.

The catch is that for Toronto to still have a potential playoff date, it needs to beat Montreal in regulation time. If the Canadiens force overtime, Toronto is eliminated because, with both teams assured of a point, the Leafs could only gain one more point with a win and just tie Montreal, but since the Canadiens have three more wins than Toronto, Montreal would finish ahead of Toronto regardless. At this stage, the only reason for Toronto to finish that overtime session would be for the sake of the Islanders, who could still catch Montreal despite that gained point- provided New York beats the Philadelphia Flyers that evening. While the Leafs would probably cherish the ability to eliminate Montreal from playoff contention, it may be small solace for a club that would go for a 41st year without a Stanley Cup championship.

This is precisely the situation the National Hockey League should dread. When the “overtime point rule” came into effect in 2001, the NHL intended it to ensure that more ties are broken, thinking that if teams wanted to preserve their point gained by going to overtime, they would be able to do so and then gain a “bonus point” for winning. In 2005-06, the NHL decided that this wasn’t enough because there were too many ties, so it decided to add a shootout to resolve the ties. It’s an understandable move, but what wasn’t understandable was the decision to preserve the overtime point. TSN’s Gord Miller stated back in 2001 that the situation could mean that someone would “get into the playoffs by losing (i.e., gaining a point from an overtime loss)”, and sure enough, the very first season it was brought in, the Los Angeles Kings lost in overtime to the Vancouver Canucks but the point gained there was good enough to propel the Kings into the postseason ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes. Of course, what didn’t happen then was a team possibly playing a team for a playoff position, with the position decided simply by the clubs forcing overtime and rendering the period useless. Such a scenario exists Saturday in Toronto.

This then begs the question- if you’re Toronto coach Paul Maurice, if the game goes to overtime, do you forfeit the game? You would have nothing to play for. Sure, there’s possibility of ending rival Montreal’s hopes, but since the fans care most about the team qualifying for the postseason, ending Montreal’s hopes would be a Pyrrhic victory. If I was Maurice, I wouldn’t play the overtime to make a point of how silly their rule is. I have no complaint about the NHL would wanting to resolve ties- however, it should also do away with the point system. A win should always mean something, no matter what condition it was arrived at, but sadly, Saturday could render a Leaf win meaningless- with the real loser being the NHL.


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