Traditionalists out there won’t want to hear it, but the view here, approaching a half-century of covering the NHL, is that the time has come to give the working help some relief — particularly in the early playoff rounds — and modify the league’s century-plus practice of overtime marathons.
The Penguins and Rangers opened their Round 1 matchup Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, and it took Evgeni Malkin’s tip of a John Marino wrister to provide the winner at 5:58 of the third overtime.
Round 1. Game 1. Triple OT. The official time mark was 105:58, ranking it No. 54 on Casey Kasem’s “longest playoff game” playlist.
The game ended at 11:48 p.m., some five hours from puck drop, and the sides were back on Broadway Thursday, less than 48 hours later, for Game 2 (Rangers, 5-2). The magic number stood at 15 for both when they squared off Saturday night in Pittsburgh for Game 3.
Anyone who cares to be honest about it, and not buy into the kneejerk narrative that multiple OTs separates Stanley Cup play from the rest of the sports world, will admit that quality of play falls off by about midway through the first OT. Bad only gets worse as the minutes pile up — the two partners left to drag each other around the floor like half-dead marathon dancers in the 1920s and ‘30s. Yowza.
Energy drains. Quality of play suffers. Ice conditions deteriorate. Risk of injury increases. Now there’s a gripping confluence of conditions.
But yeah, tradition, baby!
Starting Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith, by the way, left Game 1 at 9:18 of the second OT and will be out for the rest of the playoffs because of a core muscle surgery. DeSmith was named the starter because No. 1 Tristan Jarry was nursing a lower-body injury. It’s that time of year, folks. These guys are beat.
“That’s what we want to see, other teams going the distance, playing way more than they have to, beating each other up,” Bruins forward Charlie Coyle said the next morning. “Overtime hockey is great in the playoffs, but it takes a toll on you, it does, you wake up the next day, sore and tired, and then you’re back at it two days later.”
The captivating drama of it all, well, it’s just not there, at least not in the first round with another 6-7 weeks to go before someone is left standing with win No. 16. And it’s not yet there in the second round.
Remember, this to-infinity-and-beyond overtime meat grinder dates back decades, to an era when it took only eight wins to clinch the Cup. Into the early ‘40s, clubs played a 48-game regular season, November through mid-March, then faced the prospect of no more than 14 playoff games. Sixty-two games total.
In today’s 82-game regular season that begins in October, game No. 62 brings clubs to the trade deadline, usually in late February. The Cup winner in a typical season is crowned in mid-June — possibly in Game No. 110 if a team is stretched the full seven in all four rounds.
Now, as unappealing as it can be to watch exhausted players make sloppy plays, and goalies struggle to stand up after a save, or the ice wear down to the point someone could be expected to yell, “Car!”, I’d leave the current system in place in Rounds 3 and 4. Even then, though, only for series-clinching games.
The NHL moved to the 16-win format in 1987, the mighty Edmonton Oilers the first to win four consecutive best-of-seven series. In ‘86, the Cup won that year by the Canadiens, Round 1 was still a best-of-five.
For what it’s worth, Penguins-Rangers on Tuesday was the 17th time since 1987 that a first-round game reached triple OT. Five of those reached into a fourth or fifth OT. Of the 16 games prior to this spring, three of the clubs to participate went on win the Cup: Dallas (1999), Chicago (2015), and Tampa Bay (2020).
OK, what to do as the alternative? Shootouts? Uh, no, they’re dreadful enough in the regular season.
Instead, modeled loosely after the regular-season design, begin OT games in Rounds 1 and 2 with the sides skating four on four. If it remains tied at the 70-minute mark mark (midway through the first OT), drop down another gear to three on three.
There remains the prospect games will still go to double and triple OT, but it’s not a very realistic prospect. All that open ice should lead to quick, and no less dramatic, endings. Shootouts are a gimmick. But play at four on four and three on three remains part of the game, and usually generates more fun and scoring chances.
In fact, it’s possible the tension and entertainment factor will be even greater, with skaters afforded more room to create plays as the ice opens up because of the change in manpower. Like the regular season, the team awarded a power play will be allowed to add a skater. All of it has to be better than exhausted five-on-five play.
Also in the final two rounds, including the conference finals and the Cup Final, the return to the old format in series-clinching games would bring back just enough touch of the old world to satisfy the traditionalists.
It isn’t the prospect of a midnight or 1 a.m. finish that separates the quality of Stanley Cup play from all the rest. Longer is not more. In fact, it is typically less.
Above all, what makes Cup play stand out is the intense and physical nature of the play, the speed and the hitting of it all. It’s the courage, the strength, the IQ, and conditioning. And it’s the majestic Cup itself, big and shiny, uniquely covered in the names of its winners and not the time on the clock.
NO NEED TO RUSH
Bruins’ Lysell still developing
Fabian Lysell is signed and sealed, but immediate dreams aside, the Swedish sharpshooter is not quite ready for NHL delivery — despite his flashy playoff stats in the Western Hockey League.
Lysell, the hype around his varsity arrival growing beyond anything that preceded even David Pastrnak in Boston, rolled up a robust 4-11—15 line to pace the Vancouver Giants (No. 8 seed) to an upset 4-2 series win over Everett (No. 1 seed) in Round 1 of the playoffs.
The Giants on Friday opened up Round 2 in Kamloops (Mark Recchi a Blazers co-owner) with a 1-0 loss, the same night the Bruins played Game 3 of their series against the Hurricanes.
The goal-challenged sons of Bruce Cassidy sure could use someone with 4-11—15 scoring creds these days, but it was the right decision to keep Lysell incubating, particularly at this time of season. Look no further than the smack Wednesday night that put 6-foot-4-inch Hampus Lindholm on the express train to Palookaville. Lysell, 19, is 5-10 and about 175 pounds, his body not yet in lockstep with his game.
“He’s got all kinds of skill, a great shot, great hockey sense — all that will adapt for sure,” said Bruins president Cam Neely, a Giants alum. “It’s a matter of whether he can handle the NHL size and pace, the rigors of it.”
Lysell signed his entry-level deal with the Bruins last August, shortly after they made him the No. 21 pick in the draft. The three-year pact won’t begin until he leaves the amateur ranks, which could be next season if he and the Bruins figure it’s time to make the jump, be it to AHL Providence or Boston.
Pastrnak, now one of the game’s elite goal scorers, was slightly bigger and stronger when the Bruins drafted him at No. 25 out of the Swedish Hockey League in 2014. That bit of extra heft helped him to turn pro immediately, although he didn’t report to Causeway Street until he put up better than a point per game for his first couple of months with the WannaB’s.
“Look where David was, right?” noted Neely. “When he first came in, he realized he had to get bigger and stronger. But that happens over time when you mature, too. That’ll be the same kind of thing with Fabian.”
Left winger Zack Ostapchuk, a Giants teammate and left winger, led Round 1 WHL scoring with 3-13—16, just a tick ahead of Lysell. Ostapchuk, 6-3 and 200 pounds, has a frame already more suited for the NHL, but at age 18, even with three years of WHL experience, the Senators might prefer that he stays put for next season. A big year there, possibly with time on Team Canada in the World Junior Championship, could provide a power boost into the NHL.
The Bruins and Lysell will decide about his next steps in the offseason. He could go the pro route, which likely would mean starting in Providence, or he too could remain with the Giants. He delivered a 22-40—62 line in 53 games in the regular season. The question will be whether his game grows more rapidly there, or if, say, the heavier action in the AHL would set him up for better success in the NHL.
The Bruins view Lysell first and foremost as a scorer, something they really haven’t drafted and developed since Pastrnak. Jake DeBrusk, drafted in 2015, looked headed that way, but his career arc has been inconsistent.
Neely has been impressed by Lysell’s shot, his ability to score with it, his speed, and his overall IQ.
“He skates well enough to be in the NHL,” Neely said. “And he sees the ice really well. We are optimistic and excited about his potential. He’ll mature naturally, but he’s also going to have to put time in the gym, add weight but do it right and smart. It’s not just about bulking up, but getting stronger.”
Neely preferred not to draw comparisons between Lysell and other NHLers, be it for shooting style or scoring methods.
“I just look, can he score goals, can he put pucks past goalies?” Neely said. “He’s shown that he can do that. I’ve always felt if you are a goal scorer, you generally find ways to score goals. Sometimes even said to myself, ‘How’d that go in?’ Scorers usually find a way.”
More offense a welcome sight
One significant measure in the NHL’s much-welcomed increased offense in 2021-22 was its huge increase in the number of games in which at least one team scored a minimum of five goals. The total was a record 547 games.
Last season, only 296 games ended with at least one team connecting for at least a five-spot, which placed the year-over-year increase at 84.8 percent in such games.
More scoring power? Yes, please.
Full disclosure: The 84.8 percent is bloated because clubs only played a 56-game regular season is 2020-21. The best 82-game comparison would be 2018-19 with 465 games in the five-or-more category, making the jump this season 17.6 percent.
The 2021-22 regular season was comprised of 1,312 games, so the 547 games of five goals or more represented 41.7 percent. On a percentage basis, it was the biggest slice since 1992-93, when 539 of 1,008 games (53.5 percent) had at least one team with five-plus goals.
Through the first three nights of the playoffs, a team reached the five-goal plateau in 9 of 16 games.
Dating to 1949-50, when the six-team NHL increased its schedule to a total 210 games, the biggest lode with one team scoring at least five was 61.7 percent in 1985-86 (518 of 840 games).
The NHL’s top three scorers in that season: Wayne Gretzky (Edmonton), 215 points; Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh), 141; and Paul Coffey (Edmonton), 138.
The Canadiens, with rookie Patrick Roy in net, won the Stanley Cup.
Fans in Buffalo, where the Sabres just pinned up their 11th straight DNQ season, feel optimistic about a squad that played at a 102-point rate over the final two months. There hasn’t been much to be happy about in the Queen City, so projections at least offer promise. But not always. The Nordiques of the late 1980s and early ’90s often got on a run once they were eliminated from playoff contention, but the promised turnaround never materialized, even with an eye-popping string of top-end picks. To wit: 1988: Curtis Leschyshyn (3) and Daniel Dore (5); 1989: Mats Sundin (1); 1990: Owen Nolan (1); and 1991: Eric Lindros (1). Yep, three consecutive No. 1 picks and the Nordiques were sold and shipped off to Denver in the summer of 1995. Granted, they won the Cup as the Avalanche in the spring of ‘96, but mainly because they were gifted a 30-year-old Roy by the Habs in December of that inaugural season. So tread carefully, Buffalo, unless someone wants to send along the 2022 version of Dominik Hasek … In Ottawa, it’s an increasing fait accompli that the Senators will buy out the remaining three years of Colin White’s deal (cap hit: $4.75 million), leaving the ex-Boston College Eagle with a six-year payout of roughly $9.5 million. Career line to date for the 25-year-old pivot: 224 games, 36-62—98. He put up 41 points in 2018-19, then signed his six-year deal off that promising season, but in part because of injury hasn’t been able to repeat the touch … Noting a “regression” in play on both sides of the puck, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman last Saturday finally dismissed Jeff Blashill as bench boss. The same day, ex-Red Wings great Sergei Fedorov coached CSKA Red Army to the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with a Game 7 win (4-1) over Mettalurg Magnitogorsk — a rally from a 3-1 series deficit. Fedorov, who won the Stanley Cup with the Winged Wheels in 1997, ‘98, and 2002, could end up on Yzerman’s candidate list … Ex-Bruin Joakim Nordstrom opened the season on the CSKA roster, posted 14 points in 27 games, then terminated his deal in protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine … One from the road: With colleague Julian Benbow handling the digital vinyl, the playlist on the car ride back to the hotel late Wednesday included “Time” by the Chambers Brothers and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” the rendition by the master herself. The old guy at the wheel was near tears, even more when fellow Globe scribe Matt Porter looted Mitchell’s line for his column the next day, noting it was time for the Bruins to “get back to the Garden.” While in Raleigh it looked as if the Bruins used sticks made of a billion-year-old carbon.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.