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COLUMN: Bring The Shootouts To College Hockey

Sports Editor

Published: Monday, February 17, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 03:02

The “holy crap” reaction in sports is a phenomenon all fans and athletes encounter at different points of their athletics-related life. An elegantly accurate phrase, it’s that this-is-not-actually-happening-right-now feeling—good or bad—that clutches you by the spine and drags you to the edge your couch and limits of mental composure, forcing you to watch the scene unfold in giddy or terrible tension.

According to the official straw poll I completely fabricated over the weekend, 98.7 percent of U.S. men’s hockey fans watching Saturday’s game against Russia experienced and survived a “holy crap” moment shortly after 11 a.m Eastern Standard Time.

If you woke up at 7 a.m. on Saturday, hit snooze between two and five times and made it to the couch by 7:30, you saw Team USA take on Russia in Olympic hockey, an event that—regardless of the lack of Cold War or medal round status—inspired enough stars and stripes patriotism on Twitter and Facebook to make Miracle and Rocky IV jealous for attention.

For the first two and a half periods, the game was tense, testy, and exciting—good for sure, but not quite a truly great game. When the Americans and Russians headed into overtime deadlocked at two goals apiece, the intensity of sudden-death hockey made for even better viewing. Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane had a chance to win it for the U.S. on a breakaway, but Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stonewalled him. As 4-on-4 overtime hockey transitioned to a penalty shootout, the game’s tension came increasingly close to exploding out of TVs across the U.S.

Prior to Saturday morning, it’s likely that the majority of Americans had never heard of T.J. Oshie, a forward for the St. Louis Blues hailing from Minnesota. By game’s end, Oshie had gone viral.

After the first three rounds of a shootout, international hockey rules permit the same player to take multiple shots. Leaving international veterans, including Kane—a bona fide shootout dazzler and two-time Stanley Cup winner—glued to the bench, U.S. head coach Dan Byslma had Oshie—a 27-year-old who has never scored more than 20 goals in an NHL season—take another shot, and then another one, and another, and another, and another.

Cue the “holy craps.”

With the help of some huge saves from U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick, Oshie’s ultra-confident, looping skate-up to the net and Bobrovsky-splaying dekes produced four breathtaking shootout goals on six shots and a victory for Team USA. In a matter of minutes, his clutch performance elevated heart rates to dangerous levels and lifted him from relative obscurity to newly appointed American hero—though he denied that label.

When I woke up from a nap two hours later—partially recovered from the morning’s stress—all I could think was that, as a public necessity, hockey should have more of those good kinds of “holy crap” moments. College hockey needs to embrace the shootout.

According to the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Rules And Interpretations for NCAA Ice Hockey, if teams are mutually consenting, shootouts can be used to break a tie if teams play a standard five-minute overtime. Ultimately, though, the game will still be officially recorded as a tie—which is exactly what happened on Oct. 25 when Boston College men’s hockey tied Minnesota 3-3 and then won a shootout that, baffling many people at the time, ultimately counted for nothing.

A meaningless shootout is ultimately—for the viewer at least—not an edge-of-your-seat type of thrill, and ending a game in a tie denies closure, to paraphrase every American critic of soccer ever. If the NCAA adopted a league-wide shootout system—some conferences, including the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the Big Ten, have their own in-conference setups—to break ties that actually counted for teams’ records, the entertainment value produced would far outweigh possible drawbacks.

There are no ties in professional hockey. During the regular season in the NHL, teams play a five-minute, sudden death 4-on-4 overtime period, and if the game remains deadlocked, it goes to a shootout. In the first round of the shootout, each team selects three players to shoot—if no one scores, the shootout turns into sudden death and no player can shoot twice until every eligible shooter has been exhausted. The winning team receives the standard two points for a victory, and the losing team earns one, as opposed to zero points for a regulation loss.

Fusing an NHL-esque shootout system with the international-style opportunity to choose the same shooters again after the first three rounds are over could create a thrilling way to end NCAA games and inject an entirely new element of coaching strategy into the game—imagine the possibility of Johnny Gaudreau lining up against Brown goaltender Tyler Steele instead of the two teams settling for a draw.

One of the biggest knocks on shootouts is the claim that the individualistic component of the finish takes away from the team-centric nature of hockey, but in the end, all team sports are made up of strung-together individual performances.

While not all shootouts are as thrilling as Oshie’s scoring fest, incorporating shootouts with real consequences to college hockey would, on the occasion they arose, add another level of intensity to the game. And if there’s one thing college hockey fans enjoy, it’s those “holy crap” moments.

 

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