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Three is a Magic Number

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

It’s a low rumbling heard in the corners of NHL arenas, one that’s gotten steadily louder in recent months.  This groundswell comes from experienced, intelligent hockey people who feel strongly that the league needs to revamp the way it awards points in regular season games.  This sentiment, which has been floating around for a while now, is that every NHL regular season game should be worth three points.

  Mishkin's Moments: December 1, 2008
Currently, a team gets two points for a win, whether it comes in regulation, overtime or shootout.  A team that loses in overtime or the shootout receives one point and a regulation loss carries zero points.  So there is a discrepancy.  Games that end in regulation award two points while those that go to overtime are “three-point games”.  

Before looking at the argument as to why a change is needed, let’s review how we got to this point.  Prior to the adaptation of four-on-four overtime, the NHL gave two points to the winning team and zero points to the losing team.  If an overtime game ended in a tie, then each club received one point.  Looking to open up OT games, the league implemented four-on-four play several years ago.  In hopes of incentivizing clubs to go for the win and not play for the tie, the NHL decided if regulation ended in a tie, each team automatically picked up one point.  Therefore, teams literally had nothing to lose in overtime – if they didn’t win the game, they’d get one point, either for a loss or a tie.  The strategy worked and as fans know well, four-on-four overtime sessions are very exciting.  But because the league still had ties, the majority of games were still “two-pointers” – only the ones that ended with an overtime goal qualified as “three pointers”.  Then, coming out of the lockout, the league elected to add the shootout so that each game would have a winner and a loser.  Now, every overtime contest is a three point game.

So what’s the big deal?  Why are people grumbling about point allocation?  The biggest issue is that the current system is fundamentally unjust.  A team that dominates play for 60 minutes and posts a convincing four or five-goal win gets two points.  But so does the team that can’t win a game in 60 or 65 minutes and then outperforms its opponent in a skills competition.  Then there’s the complaint about the shootout loser.  How can a shootout loss count for half a much as a 5-0 victory?  And on an even more basic level, how can some games be worth more than others?

So what’s the solution?  I don’t think anyone wants to do away with exciting four-on-four overtime hockey.  The shootout has its detractors, but most fans seem to like it and the powers that be in the NHL aren’t about to get rid of it.  That’s why the discussion has centered on making every game worth three points.  A team that wins in regulation picks up all three.  I’ve heard differing views on the four-on-four.  Some feel that once a game goes to OT, the points need to be divvyed up exactly as they currently are.  Others feel that a four-on-four overtime winner should get all three.  (I happen to believe that making overtime a winner-take-all could defeat the purpose of having both teams go for the win, but that’s a discussion for another day).  Everyone seems to be in agreement, however, that a shootout winner receives only two and the loser gets one.  Making all games worth three points would solve the problem of point discrepancy and, at the same time, appropriately reward teams for winning games before they get to the shootout.

This would also serve to bust apart the logjam standings that occur under the current system.  Teams that earn more three-point wins would give themselves a little separation from the rest of the pack.  Exciting races for playoff spots would still exist, but the deserving teams – in other words, the ones that more frequently take care of business during regulation – would benefit. That seems to be just and fair.  

While this would be a minor byproduct of such a change, the league would have to address how to structure the standings page.  Now, columns exist for wins, losses and overtime or shootout losses.  In distinguishing three point wins from two point victories, the standings page in the newspaper would get more complicated.  My suggestion would be to simplify the page down to the base essentials.  In the playoffs, it’s all about wins.  It takes four victories to win a series and 16 to capture the Stanley Cup.  But in the regular season, points are more important than wins.  The number of wins only comes into play as a tie-breaker.  The other significant column in the regular season standings is games played, a stat from which fans can determine point potential.  So reduce the standings page to two columns: games played and points.  If teams are tied, papers could list the club with more wins on top.  If fans want to see the win/loss breakdown, they can go on-line and look at an extended standings page on

I sense that the conversation is just beginning about three-point games.  Let’s see if it comes up as a topic at some of the NHL meetings over the course of this season.

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