Tuesday, October 18, 2005

When Petr Sykora lined up for his turn at the shootout Sunday evening against Tampa Bay at MCI Center, fans were on their feet screaming, rooting, hoping he would extend the Washington Capitals’ lead.

There was an unmistakable air of excitement surrounding the moment, unlike almost anything previously associated with hockey. The closing seconds of a truly meaningful game decided by a single goal comes close, or a player attempting a penalty shot.

After all, that’s all an NHL shootout is, three players for each side displaying their skill at scoring off a penalty shot, and goalies doing their best to stop them.

For the first time since it was founded in 1917, the NHL has decided there will be no more tie games. Games that are tied after regulation go to five minutes of 4-on-4 overtime. Games still tied go to the 3-vs.-3 shootout. Games still tied after that go to sudden-death shootouts, where the first unmatched goal is the winner.

Traditionalists are not happy with the development but are surprisingly willing to accept it if it helps solve one of the key problems in the game today — creating excitement in many of the 24 markets in the United States and by doing that filling a lot of empty seats.

“I’m a traditionalist. I liked the game the way it was,” said Caps goalie Olie Kolzig, who is 1-0 in shootouts, “but I understand the need to get fans back, especially in the United States. Everybody’s excited about it. They wanted to generate excitement and I think they’ve done that.”

Said Caps general manager George McPhee: “Our fans like it and we have to make the game more exciting for them. The strange thing is the [revised] game has been so entertaining that we probably didn’t need the shootout. The game is better than it’s ever been and we’ve added the shootout as well. This has turned out to be tremendous for our fans in every respect.”

While there appears to be very little criticism of the concept (it has been tried previously in minor leagues), it goes against one of the guiding principles of hockey, that it is a team game first and foremost.

“It’s a tough way to lose a game,” Caps veteran center Andrew Cassels said. “You look at any sport and I don’t think anybody wants it to come down to two guys when it’s a team game.”

Said Caps center Dainius Zubrus: “But Sunday you saw everybody on their feet, waiting to see what was going to happen next. The pressure? Nah. You could have one bad shift in the third period and it could cost you the game. The spotlight is on you for maybe 10 seconds, that’s not pressure. The spotlight’s on Olie for 60 minutes, that’s pressure.”

Who shoots is almost a no-brainer for Caps coach Glen Hanlon.

“You take a look at the skill level of your people and apply it,” he said rather matter-of-factly. “I believe you live and die with your best players. If we have to defend a lead, I’ll have my best defensive players out there. If we’re down a goal … I’m not going to put my fourth line checker out there.”

Against the Lightning he had Alex Ovechkin, Sykora and Brian Willsie ready. The first two scored while Kolzig stopped two of the three Tampa Bay shooters. Game over.

But what if Ovechkin, for instance, is having a bad night. Do you pick someone else?

“If Alex is having a bad night, we likely won’t make it to the shootout,” Hanlon replied, speaking volumes about the impact the rookie is having.a

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