In this week's Head-To-Head, NHL.com staffers Darryl Haberman and Brad Holland lock horns over the virtues -- or lack there of -- of deciding single-elimination World Junior Championship games via the shootout.
THE SHOOTOUT IS A KEEPER
If the world's most popular sport, on the world's biggest stage, in the most important, deciding game of a tournament played every four years can be settled on penalty kicks, then the World Junior Championships can decide its games with shootouts.
Remember this summer? Soccer's World Cup on the line, France vs. Italy? Well, Wednesday's WJC matchup between Team Canada and Team USA was a lot like that. It was the only possible way to finish that game, or to finish any of these elimination games, for that matter.
The alternative, five-on-five or extended four-on-four overtime play, simply doesn't work logically.
Imagine this. The 2007 quarterfinal between Team Finland and Team USA, beginning Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Sweden, goes into the fourth overtime of a strict 5-on-5 format and ends at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. The players haven't eaten a meal in almost eight hours, and are now famished, dehydrated, exhausted, and still looking at about an hour before they're finished eating. Add another hour until they're in bed, ready to sleep.
In that scenario, the Americans wouldn't have lasted a half period against the likes of Marc Staal, Kris Letang and Luc Bourdon rushing headlong across the ice, sniffing out predatory body checks against a weary opponent in a game that started Wednesday afternoon. The rested Canadians would've physically crushed the vulnerable Americans.
I know what you might say, and what some have already said: Brad, they don't have to play 5-on-5 for four extra periods. They could go to a 4-on-4 set, then 3-on-3, and someone will score, sooner rather than later.
Sounds good, but, then again, maybe not. Five, 10, now 20 minutes go by without a score, then what? Two-on-two? One-on-one? Defenseman must be blindfolded before stepping on the ice? The goaltender loses a piece of equipment with each save? Is this Slap Shot 2? What kind of circus must these kids be subjected to?
Let's keep the dignity of the game intact.
Either you play five-on-five OT until someone scores, or you find a way for quick resolution. And because the tournament isn't set up for these long games -- the championship game would've been Team USA's seventh in 11 days -- the only option available is the shootout. Add a quick OT, if you want, but the real deal here is the shootout.
Don't kid yourself - even the players want it. They want to show their clubs just what they're capable of, to show the scouts they're ready to take the next step. What better way to end a game in a tournament that focuses on individual skills? Because these kids are aiming to play in the NHL, a league that currently carries a 4-on-4 format with shootout finales in regular-season overtime contests.
If scouts are to supposed to be assessing these kids for their NHL ability, then this is how they're going to do it, by scouting the same style of game their prospects will be playing in four or five years.
These kids are the future of the NHL, where they will be competing against one another for many years. These shootouts create good history between prospects. History breeds familiarity, familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt makes for good drama.
Imagine the extra fire that will rest in the bellies of Jonathan Toews and Jeff Frazee when Minnesota plays North Dakota in either the NCAA hockey playoffs, or - drool -- the NCAA National Championship.
But I digress.
Darryl, don't be afraid of the shootout. The shootout is your friend. You know it is. I don't have to convince you of something you already know; something deep in your heart, something that you'd hate to admit, even in private, with close friends and in confidence.
You love the shootout.
Oh, you can talk all you want about tradition, about staying true to the game, about it not being a fair way to end a 60-minute battle. But when it comes right down to it, when you're sitting there watching Jack Johnson bear down on Carey Price, a goal needed to tie it in the shootout. If Johnson scores it's on, and, if not, well, you don't want to think about 'if not.' Then, you tell me what you think of the shootout.
You see Johnson pick up the puck, notice Price backing in slowly. Johnson likes to shoot, but Price knows what he likes - Johnson weaving in, Price holding his ground. Both wait for the other's first move. Both are trying to hold out, to be the hero, the one to win the game; for self, for team, for country.
You pump your fist and shout along with everyone else when the net puffs up, the black of the puck tucked securely in the low corner. Relief! Ecstasy! Johnson's tied it! We're in for another round; or better yet, he wins it! Johnson rides his stick and doesn't even make it back to the bench before his teammates maul him. The announcers, they can hardly announce the play because they're too busy watching the replay.
There is no more exciting play in hockey than the shootout. Remember Forsberg vs. Joseph? Shanahan vs. Hasek? Malkin vs. Kolzig?
The fans know it, the players know it, and as badly as you might feel for the goaltenders, they know it too. There is no better way to rise to the occasion, to shrug off the pressure and burn your name into the minds of the fans than to bury one in the shootout. No better way to win the game and earn your team's anthem over the loudspeaker.
The shootout belongs in these international competitions; it was made for it. The ice is too big, and play can be kept to the outside and made into a boring, tedious affair with no end in sight. Let's keep the game in the middle. Let's bring the excitement level up. Let's get this game finished, let's not cry for the loser. And let's get to the gold-medal game, and do the same thing over again.
Because in the World Juniors, the shootout works. It makes great theater. And it's here to stay.