Like the clarion call of "Fight!" in a schoolyard, news of a shootout puts everyone in touch with his inner rubbernecker. The Phoenix Coyotes, for example, were filtering out of American Airlines Center in Dallas on Nov. 25 when someone said the magic word, setting off a stampede to the security guards' television. "Somebody says Calgary and Edmonton are going to a shootout and, whoop, our whole team is standing around this little eight-inch, black-and-white set," right wing Shane Doan recalls. "That's typical. In the [dressing] room when someone says a shootout's on, suddenly 15 guys are at the TV." � The biggest story of the first half of the NHL's postlockout season was not a team (though the Ottawa Senators dazzled) or a player (despite Jaromir Jagr's resuscitation with the New York Rangers) but a concept, one that has kicked around the minors for more than two decades but hasn't affected a league the way it has the NHL. Stodgy is out. Shootouts are in.
The removal of the red line and stricter interpretation of the rules prohibiting obstruction have had a more profound effect on actual play. But the shootout, which serves as a tiebreaker after overtime, is the shiny bauble in a league that had been at risk of becoming as outdated as the slide rule. The hidebound NHL--some owners probably thought a shootout would be settled with muskets--finally grasped that the penalty-shot contest (best of three rounds; if no resolution, then sudden-death rounds until one team prevails) was not gimmickry but an asset that addressed the league's needs on at least two levels. First, it did away with ties and supplied a conclusion, a black-and-white result that is one of sports' essential charms in a world dappled with grays; and second, it provided genuine thrills. This is not an inane dot race on the Jumbotron but something organic--a penalty shot is part of hockey--that showcases shooters' and goaltenders' skills. As Rangers coach Tom Renney says, "The shootout might have saved the day."
Think of the shootout like NHL fighting: Whether you adore it or abhor it (as some within the league still do), you look.
"I'll be watching a game on TV, and when it goes to OT, I'll think, Don't ruin it by scoring--get to a shootout," says Senators coach Bryan Murray, who is compelled to watch even though he is philosophically opposed to the shootout.
Adds Montreal Canadiens defenseman Sheldon Souray, "It's like you're a Bruce Springsteen fan and this group *NSYNC comes along, and someone says you've got to listen to their songs. You give one a try and you're like, 'Not bad,' but you don't want to mention it too loudly. That's the shootout."
The shootout filled another NHL vacuum by creating decisive, stand-alone moments that could be admired and deconstructed as easily as a Brett Favre bomb, a LeBron James dunk, a David Ortiz home run. Of its top 10 sports plays of 2005, TSN, the Canadian sports network, included two shootout goals. The network's No. 4 was a Nov. 10 winner by Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in his first game against his favorite team growing up, the Canadiens. The Penguins rookie faked a shot--"I knew he likes to go five-hole, and I sort of bit on his deke," goalie Jos� Th�odore said--and switched to his backhand before roofing the puck, launching Th�odore's water bottle six feet into the air. The No. 1 play was Rangers defenseman Marek Malik's between-the-legs circus shot that ended the Nov. 26 shootout marathon against the Washington Capitals, the most thrilling 15-rounder at Madison Square Garden since Ali-Frazier I. The virtuosity was as unhurried and uncluttered as it was shocking from a stay-at-home defenseman. Said Chicago Blackhawks coach Trent Yawney, "To think Malik would have the [nerve] to try that in New York and actually score, that was out of this world."
The buzz around a shootout extends to the benches. Says Doan, "Everyone's leaning over the [boards] talking about what the shooter's going to do: 'Who's played with him? What's he got?' Everyone's wagering: 'He'll fake a shot, then go to his backhand, top shelf.' 'No, five-hole.'
"No one says anything to your goalie," adds Doan. "You just let him do his thing. If you yell [the shooter's] going to do one thing and he pulls another move [and scores], you're going to feel awful."
If the shootout were intended as a sop for fans after a canceled season--"In preseason it was a joke; guys were laughing about it," Coyotes center Mike Ricci says--it soon turned from diversion to deadly serious, especially for teams such as the Colorado Avalanche. Although top-heavy with scorers, the Avalanche, eighth in the Western Conference through Sunday, bungled its first three shootouts of the season. Initially coach Joel Quenneville picked Joe Sakic as his No. 3 shooter, but when two of those shootouts didn't reach the Avalanche's third round, the Colorado captain didn't get to attempt a shot. Quenneville has since joined the mainstream by using his best shooters in descending order. If the Avalanche narrowly misses the playoffs for the first time since 1994, Quenneville will rue his early shootout lineup.
Colorado players aren't the only ones grumbling that shootouts are over too quickly. Although the best-of-three-rounds format has proved delightfully snappy, Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock would prefer five rounds, the number used in the Olympics and elsewhere. The NHL opted to go with three shooters for expediency, but for Hitchcock, a protracted shootout would make it less an individual and more a team exercise. "If you have five [shooters] you are forced to [use] more players who actually impacted the game," he says. "With three it allows you to [use] a specialist who might not have."