Even if his top guns hadn’t been shooting blanks since before Thanksgiving, Claude Julien wouldn’t like these “High Noon” showdowns that follow overtime in the National Hockey League.
“I’m not a big fan of earning extra points that way,” says the Bruins coach, whose club has collected only 3 of a possible 12 that way this season. “This is a team game, and when you let individuals decide it that way, I’m still old-school when it comes to that. I have a hard time with it. But it’s an entertainment sport and the fans seem to enjoy it.”
Shootouts have been the rule for a decade now, and they’re not going away.
“Fans like the way the game is,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN this month. “That’s something we’re going to discuss. I’m not sure anybody is ready to make a change.”
If the league’s general managers have their way, more games will be decided in overtime and fewer by shootout next year. Should the competition committee and Board of Governors approve, the present four-on-four overtime format would be replaced either by a three-on-three for five minutes or by the American Hockey League’s successful seven-minute hybrid of four-on-four for the first three minutes and three-on-three for the remainder.
The Bruins, who are 8-3 in overtime decisions, won’t argue. They’re 3-9 in shootouts this season, 26th in the league by percentage. And if they miss the playoffs, those squandered points — most recently the losses to bottom-feeding Buffalo at the Garden and at Florida last weekend — likely will be the reason.
New Jersey went a record 0 for 13 in shootouts last season, slipped out of sight, and missed the playoffs by 5 points. “FINALLY!” the club’s website declared after the Devils beat the Jets the night before Halloween last autumn to end their sorry 0-for-18 streak in shootouts.
Shootout success can have a direct impact on the standings. Montreal, which leads the Atlantic Division by 2 points, is 6-3 in shootouts. Tampa Bay, which trails, is 2-5. St. Louis, which is 1 point up in the Central, is 9-4 in shootouts. Nashville is 6-5.
But the correlation isn’t universal. The Rangers, who are atop the Metropolitan Division, are 4-5 in shootouts. The Islanders, 7 points behind, are 7-3.
Part art, part science
The Bruins, who are in the middle of the pack in the all-time standings since the shootout was adopted for the 2005-06 campaign, have been up and down from the beginning. When they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, they were 2-6 in shootouts. When they went out in the first round to Washington the following year, they were 9-3. So finding a pattern to explain this season’s persistent malfunction is elusive.
“We haven’t had that much success this year and it’s been a little bit frustrating,” says Julien, whose club lost seven shootouts in a row after winning its first two. “We’ve had more success in the past with kind of the same players that we’ve had this year.”
The Bruins, who used only six shooters in a dozen outings three years ago, have gone through a franchise-record 15 this season, partly from the empty-the-bench necessity of going 12 rounds with Edmonton in their February grinder, with Zdeno Chara’s blocked slap shot the final attempt.
The Oilers won that one by tapping defenseman Martin Marincin, who’d never scored an NHL goal, who’d never been in a shootout, and who lost control of the puck before sliding it past Tuukka Rask.
“Sometimes those work,” teammate Jordan Eberle mused. “If you don’t know what you are doing, there is no way [the] goalie does.”
Such is the art and science of the shootout, which depends upon multiple variables: the goalie, the shooters, their order, and the condition of the ice. The Bruins have a scouting report on each opposing netminder, provided by goalie coach Bob Essensa.
“Sometimes there are suggestions coming from him on who is the best shooter for that kind of goaltender,” says Julien.
The best goal scorers aren’t necessarily the top shootout snipers. Of the league’s top six goal scorers — Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Rick Nash, Vladimir Tarasenko, Max Pacioretty and Joe Pavelski — only Tarasenko is listed among the top 30 shootout scorers. And Anaheim wing Jakob Silfverberg, who has scored on 9 of his 13 shootout attempts, has only 12 goals on the season and ranks 176th overall.
“You try and look at maybe who’s your hot shooter at the time or is having a good game,” says Julien.
Most of the time, that has meant selecting Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, Boston’s top two goal scorers, and defenseman Torey Krug, who fires short-range rockets.
But as the string of misfires lengthened — the Bruins were thwarted 27 straight times over five games — Julien began picking rookies David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner.
“You send somebody different,” he says, “because some goaltenders will have a tendency to pre-scout shooters.”
The unfamiliar face often makes for productive mystery. When Boston’s first six bids were denied in a November shootout at Columbus, Julien went with Alex Khokhlachev, who’d been called up a day earlier from Providence, who’d played only one game in the NHL and only two since. He put a couple of fakes on Sergei Bobrovsky, the former Vezina Trophy winner, then went five-hole for the victory in Bobrovsky’s only shootout loss of the season.
“A third-liner or third-pair defenseman or whatever are the most difficult ones because you honestly don’t know what they’re going to do,” says Rask. “They can take a slap shot between the legs or a one-handed move, which is really tough to defend.”
What differentiates shootouts from breakaways are time and space.
“There’s nobody on the guy, so he can come as slow as he wants,” observes Rask.
Instead of a headlong dash, the shooter has the luxury of a languid, serpentine approach that allows for mulling multiple options.
“A breakaway is more like spur-of-the moment,” says Bergeron. “You can’t really think. You’re just out there executing and you’re using your instincts.
“You’ve got to try to bring that same kind of theory with the shootouts. Not thinking too much and trying to go out and take what’s available from what you see in front of you.”
The variety of possibilities and decisions — shoot or deke, forehand or backhand — can lead to a smothered puck when the shooter runs out of room at the goalmouth. Which is why a number of shooters are reluctant to stickhandle through choppy ice that makes the puck go haywire.
“Pucks definitely hop a lot more, and it’s tougher to deke for sure,” says Marchand, who went to a quick wrister for the clincher against the Lightning March 12 that marked the club’s first shootout victory since early November.
Recalculating the odds once everything is in motion generally is a losing strategy.
“The best shooters have a plan and they execute it,” observes Krug. “There’s definitely a lot of danger when you’re coming in and you’re thinking about what the goalie’s doing and you think you have three or four different options that you’re running through your head and all of a sudden you’re not decisive.”
Silfverberg clearly is a man with a plan.
“Nine times out of 10, I make my decision before I go,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Disguising the plan is what makes St. Louis wing T.J. Oshie one of the league’s foremost go-to guys and what earned him a place on last year’s US Olympic team, for whom he took the final five shots in the victory over Russia, making three.
Still, NHL clubs are loath to reserve a roster spot for a shootout specialist.
“There’s no doubt that it’s a great asset to have, but at the end of the day, you hope that you’re not playing for a shootout,” says Julien. “So personally I would prefer having players who can play and hopefully can still do the job in a shootout.
“But just having a guy primarily for that reason, if he’s not going to bring much else . . .”
Pressure on the goalie
While Boston has been involved in only 12 shootouts in 73 games, the dramatic denouement makes 1 point seem decidedly more significant.
“That’s why shootouts are so different from anything else,” says Rask. “If you win, it’s like the biggest win of the season — and when you lose, it’s the end of the world.”
In previous seasons, the Bruins’ shootout record has not been the difference between playing hockey or golf in mid-spring. Not so this year, when their abysmal marksmanship — eight goals in 55 attempts — has put exceptional pressure on their goaltender.
“Our shootouts lately, I’ve had to stop all of them pretty much in order to win,” says Rask. “So it wears on you mentally knowing that you can’t let up a goal because you’ll lose.”
The significance of the shootout likely will be decidedly less if the AHL’s experience is any guide. The new minor league format has decided more than three-quarters of overtime games before a shootout. Whether the NHL adopts that model or a three-on-three, there figures to be fewer “High Noon” outcomes next season.
“I’m good with both,” Detroit GM Ken Holland, a longtime shootout foe, told ESPN at last week’s meetings. “I think in both cases what we’re trying to accomplish is take where 40 percent of our games are decided in overtime and 60 percent in shootouts — ideally we’d like to switch those numbers.”
When Boston won the Stanley Cup in 1972, only 11 of its games were tied at the end of regulation. This season, 23 have been, five of them this month.
“For some reason, we’ve decided that there needs to be a winner every game,” says Julien. “Sometimes a lot of people can go home really happy having seen a game that was well-played, that was tight at the end of it, and was exciting to watch versus people going home feeling like they didn’t do a great job because they lost it in the shootout. It really tarnishes the outcome of the whole game.”