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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.

FULL STORY
 

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Head to Head (Shoot-Out) Part 1


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.

OUT WITH THE SHOOTOUT!


You gotta be kidding! A shootout to end one of the most dramatic games in the history of the World Junior Championship, can't be!

Yet, amazingly, that is what we got Wednesday.

Let's set the scene properly. The combatants are USA and Canada in the WJC semifinal. The outcome decides which country plays for a gold medal.

The game is tightly contested -- there are scoring chances and dazzling saves at both ends of the ice -- in an exciting tournament where some of hockey's top Under-20 prospects are playing for their countries and living out a dream.

The Americans are up 1-0 through 40 minutes of action and control the play against a Canadian team that went 4-0 in the preliminary round and has won 17 U-20 games in a row.

Team USA, a team with little rest, looked poised to knock off the Goliaths of the junior hockey world. Canada was hesitant and wasn't sustaining any offense, let alone effectively executing two consecutive passes.

The Canadians, a team that was clearly struggling against the tenacious Americans, did, however, manage to get the equalizer with eight minutes left in regulation after the 5-on-3 portion of their power play had expired moments earlier.

In the third period, you sensed the Americans were starting to feel the effects of four games in five days. But in games such as these, with much at stake against an arch-enemy, that little extra something needed to survive comes easily. The adrenaline and nerves that contests like this create are exactly what makes playoff hockey thrilling.

Just ask poor Bradley, who nearly succumbed to high-blood pressure watching this tension-filled affair on TSN.

So, lo and behold, this classic game goes to overtime. Both teams have a few opportunities to vault their squad into the gold-medal game, but both goalies, Team USA's Jeff Frazee - property of the New Jersey Devils -- and Team Canada's Carey Price -- drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 2005 -- are equal to the task.

The game has all the makings of an epic after a scoreless 10 minutes of four-on-four overtime hockey, but not on this day.

This one is determined by a skills competition! Skater vs. goaltender in hockey's version of Mano-e-Mano.

Huh? What!

Both teams strut out their finest penalty-shot performers for a best-of-three. The crew with the most goals after three shooters wins. Of course, this hard-fought match couldn't produce a victor after just three rounds. This border war -- between junior hockey's best and a vastly improved US contingent - must be decided by sudden-death breakaways.

And, to boot, there's this idiotic rule that a team can use one of its previous shooters in any round now. And, not just once or twice... as long as this exhibition lasts.

Now, this is some way to decide a World Junior Championship semifinal game! I can just hear those hockey fanatics Wayne and Garth looking dumbfounded and questioning "As if?"

Well, then again, Mike Myers who plays Wayne Campbell in Wayne's World, is a Canadian and a self-abashed Toronto Maple Leafs fan. He'd probably love to have Mats Sundin shoot multiple times in a shootout.

OK, I'm getting off point. Back to it.

Canada takes advantage of that bonehead shootout rule and is rewarded with two more goals from 2006 Blackhawks first-round pick Jonathan Toews. The sniper had scored earlier in the best-of-three format.

Essentially, in this wacky scenario, Toews is the playground bully who dares Frazee and the Americans to stop him. When, Team USA's Peter Mueller is thwarted by Price in his third breakaway attempt, the Canadians prevail.

Just like that, it's over.

That's all she wrote. Sorry Americans. The official score will go down a 2-1 Canada after nine goals were scored in a seven-round shootout.

Yes, that wasn't a typo. Nine goals were scored in 14 opportunities. That's either ineptitude in goal or immense skill on the part of a few players -- even more the reason not to conclude decisive games like this.

You Americans played a whale of a game, but couldn't match Toews heroics or get another save from Frazee when it counted. Forget about out-playing the mighty Canadians nearly the entire game. You guys will have to wait until next year when your shootout acumen and/or luck improves.

Oh, wait, some of you guys might not be eligible to play next year or may even be in the NHL at the time. That's a shame! Boo hoo, that's the way the cookie crumbles. Should've practiced your penalty shots some more.

The shootout cheated those kids who competed so hard just to make these national teams and fight for the chance to get on the medal stand. It cheats those players who may not have the talent to crack an NHL roster and play for the right to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

These games are the biggest games of their lives. Their moment boils down to one shooter and one goaltender. One team goes home happy.

I wonder why the NHL hasn't instituted this formula in its Stanley Cup Playoffs games. Gee, I know why, because it's dumb and anti-climatic. A season coming down to whether or not a player can score on a staged breakaway would not produce memorable contests.

I know I'm not alone in looking for players giving it their all in overtime, working together as a team to stop a puck, complete a pass, create some energy, steal momentum and score that sought-after goal.

I won't even go into those epic, long-talked-about, tremendous multiple overtime contests the Stanley Cup Playoffs produces year after year. That's better than anything Hollywood has to offer.

Canada is fortunate -- err, lucky -- to advance. Meanwhile, the Americans are left with an empty feeling after coming oh-so close to knocking off Team Canada.

Now, the best Team USA can do is bronze. Hopefully, that game won't be determined with another series of staged breakaways.

FULL STORY
 
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