If the Flyers’ coaches and players took Tuesday night’s loss to the Islanders harder than they do most losses, if their quotes were a little more somber and serious, their faces all hangdogs, there was a good reason.
When defenseman Ryan Pulock stepped into a slap shot and ripped the puck over the right shoulder of Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott for the winning goal, with 41 seconds left in regulation, in the Islanders’ 5-3 victory, it cost the Flyers more than a chance to beat adivision rival. It cost them a commodity so valuable that it drives teams’ thinking and strategy throughout the NHL.
It cost them a point in the standings. One point.
By winning the game in regulation, the Islanders picked up two points and, more importantly, kept the Flyers from picking up any. That might not sound like much, but in the NHL, it’s everything — or, at least, teams treat it like it’s everything.
The Islanders now have 72 points this season and are in third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers have 69 points, are in fifth place in the Metropolitan, and are clinging to the second of the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card berths. Three points don’t sound like much. But in the NHL, three points are huge. Three points can be an ocean.
Three points don’t look or feel like an ocean to anyone perusing the standings, of course. But they are, and players and coaches around the league know it. The NHL’s system for determining how teams collect points and earn spots in its postseason tournament is so cockamamie, geared toward artificially propping up teams and ginning up and maintaining interest in the regular season and early rounds of the playoffs, that it warps both the standings themselves and the manner in which teams play.
It’s strained. It’s silly. And it might just get the Flyers into the postseason.
Let’s go back in time a bit to explain. After the 1999-2000 season, the NHL adopted a new rule: When a game was tied at the end of regulation, each team was guaranteed a point. The teams would play a 4-on-4 overtime period. When the game was still deadlocked, it ended in a tie. When one team won in OT, it earned two points, but the losing team still earned one.
Then, coming out of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, the league tweaked the formula again, eliminating ties altogether. When tied after 60 minutes, the two teams would play a five-minute overtime period. When neither scored during overtime, a shootout would determine which team won the game and earned the all-important second point.
On the surface, all has been well. A 3-on-3 overtime period (implemented in 2015) can make for thrilling hockey — all that open space, so many scoring chances — and fans seem to love the shootout. But as often happens with radical change in any large institution, there have been some unintended consequences to this new system.
Over time, teams began to direct themselves toward achieving one goal: assuring themselves of at least one point in any game. When the score is tied late in the third period, why push to score the winning goal in regulation when, in doing so, you might open yourself up to an odd-man rush, lose the game before overtime, and get nothing for your trouble?
“Since I’ve been in the league, it’s been that way,” said Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen, who is in his 13th NHL season. “There’s not a defined minute in the third period when you start doing that. It might be different for each team, depending on where you’re at. But there’s a point, for sure, that your mindset switches. ‘We’ll take an offensive chance, but …’ ”
The result has been a predictable trend: It’s no longer unusual for 20-25% of a team’s games to be decided in either 3-on-3 overtime or shootouts, and those artifices — neither of which is used in the postseason — are often the determining factors in whether a team qualifies for the postseason.
Look at the Eastern Conference standings. Entering Wednesday night’s slate of games, six teams were clustered between 66 and 72 points, and each of them had played between 11 and 17 games that ended after regulation.
“Our players right now are looking at the standings,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “They know it’s a battle. It’s a battle every night for points.”
So teams become more homogenous and conservative in their styles of play in the name of chasing those all-important points. The overall strengths and weaknesses that might separate teams over a full season are de-emphasized because so many clubs are content to have their fates determined largely by processes and outcomes that often come down to randomness, a couple of skilled players, and luck.
For instance, the Carolina Hurricanes, who have 67 points, have won 10 of their 13 games that have ended tied in regulation. Those 10 extra points, from overtime and shootout wins, are keeping the ‘Canes in the playoff race. The Flyers, who have a notoriously lousy history in shootouts, have reversed that fortune some this season: They’ve won nine of their 16 OT/shootout games. Those nine victories matter a lot, but what matters more is that the Flyers have gotten points in all 16 of those games.