The NHL couldn’t have been more pleased with how the final week of the regular season unfolded. The eight playoff teams in the West weren’t determined until Thursday and the last two Eastern playoff spots were still up for grabs heading into Saturday. Seedings and first round matchups weren’t set until the final day either. The tightness of the races made for some compelling storylines and exciting action in the regular season’s closing weeks and days. It was great stuff.
There was one scenario, however, that didn’t come to pass – and I’m glad it didn’t. The Lightning played the Boston Bruins on that final Saturday. In the middle of the third period of that game, the Bruins learned that they had been eliminated from the postseason. That’s because Pittsburgh beat Buffalo (and the Pittsburgh game had started 30 minutes earlier than Lightning-Bruins). Heading into Saturday, the Bruins had trailed the Penguins by one point for the last playoff spot. So Pittsburgh’s win sealed Boston’s fate.
But consider this possible scenario instead … let’s say that the Penguins had lost their game in Buffalo in overtime or the shootout. The one point gained would have put Pittsburgh up by two points on the Bruins, pending the outcome of the game at Amalie Arena. A Boston win over the Lightning then would have resulted in a standings tie with Pittsburgh. The first tiebreaker is ROW – Regulation/Overtime wins – or total wins minus shootout victories. Before Game 82, the Bruins had 37 ROW and Pittsburgh had 38 ROW. If teams are tied in ROW, the second tiebreaker is points gained in the head-to-head matchups. The Bruins won two of three from Pittsburgh during the regular season, so a Boston regulation or overtime win over the Bolts would have given the Bruins the tiebreaker edge and the final playoff spot. A Boston shootout triumph, however, would have left the Bruins with those 37 ROW, so Pittsburgh would have won the tiebreaker instead.
During the morning skate on Saturday, I was chatting with some of the Boston media contingent and asked the following question – if the Penguins gained only one point against Buffalo and the Bruins and Lightning game went to OT (which it did, as it turned out), would Boston coach Claude Julien, knowing the outcome of the Pittsburgh game, pull his goalie in overtime in an attempt to win before it got to a shootout? The Boston folks had just been discussing the same scenario and they all felt he would. He would have had to, in order to make the playoffs.
Not that many Lightning fans are going to feel sympathy for the Bruins, a team that had dominated the Bolts over the years, but the Bruins should not have been even theoretically put in such a position.
The reason why the NHL has used “wins” as the first tiebreaker is simple: a team should be rewarded if it wins more games than a club that cobbled together the same number of points through more overtime and shootout losses (or before that, ties). A couple of years ago, the league amended the rule to exclude the shootout wins. The spirit of the changed rule is to reward a team that wins more games through real hockey play rather than a “skills competition” as the shootout is sometimes called. But the Boston/Pittsburgh scenario, as unlikely as it was and even though it didn’t come to pass, exposed a flaw. In my book, if the Bruins and Pens had tied in points, the Bruins should have won the tiebreaker, regardless of ROW. That’s because they won two of three in head-to-head matchups. Instead, under the current order of tiebreakers, Julien would have had to take extraordinary measures just to avoid the shootout. Even though his team won the head-to-head.
I think if you beat a team in a regular season series, you have earned the tiebreaker. So I’d like to see the NHL flip the order of the tiebreakers, so that the head-to-head is the first tiebreaker and, in the event of a head-to-head points tie, ROW is the second. I understand no tiebreaker is a perfect solution, even head-to-head. A team might lose a head-to-head game because it may have faced its opponent during an isolated slump. Or when it had a rash of injuries. But teams within the same conference (who would be contending for potential postseason spots) play each other at least three times a year. To me, that’s enough of a sample size.
Of course, if the league incorporates three-on-three in overtime next year, the number of shootouts will likely decrease. So there may be fewer “wins” to subtract from a team’s total. And, in the scenario spelled out above, Julien might not have felt the need to pull the goalie during wide-open three-on-three action. Still, I think when the league needs to determine a tiebreaker winner, a club that beat its opponent in the season series should advance, even if that team reached its point total with more OT/SO losses. In that case, the “loser” in the tiebreaker might gripe about how it earned more wins over the course of the regular season. But it didn’t win more in the head-to-head. And that should be the final word.