With the Calgary Flames in the middle of their most important week of the NHL season – playing a trio of games against teams they need to pass to secure a playoff spot in the Western Conference (Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche) – here's a question to ponder:
Does a team play differently in the current era, where the infinitely wise NHL splits three points for games decided in overtime or a shootout, but awards only two points for game decided in regulation?
Empirically, it looks as if all teams shift into a conscious defensive shell in the latter stages of a tied game, with the goal of protecting their single point. Instead of playing to win, they're playing not to lose.
It wasn't always that way.
Once upon a time, when ties were permitted and there were just two points up for grabs in a game, teams played the same way in the first five minutes as they did in the last. They tried to win.
Sometimes, it worked out and, sometimes, it didn't. But unlike today, there was no reward for stretching a game beyond 60 minutes, no bonus point to safely tuck in the bank, so the psychology and approach was different.
Nowadays, why wouldn't you play a safe, conservative game in the waning moments, to protect the single point and then go for broke in overtime or the shootout? Other than permitting your opponent to also bank a point in the standings, it's a logical move. It doesn't make for a lot of dramatic finishes but, hey, this isn't about entertainment, it's about locking down a playoff spot however you can.
"Especially early in the season, you want to secure those points and so you do see in the last five minutes, more safe play and not so much high risk," Flames defenceman Mark Giordano said prior to Wednesday's date with the Kings. "I think that's the mindset – and it's not a bad mindset, because you secure that point and then you go for it more in overtime where there's a lot more open ice and there's a lot more opportunity to create.
"But then it flip-flops down the stretch because in a game like [Wednesday] you can't have that mindset because we can't afford to give L.A. a point. So our mindset … has to be: we have to win this game in regulation."
Flames captain Jarome Iginla enthusiastically agreed with the first half of Giordano's statement. Iginla said it is not a figment of anyone's imagination – teams do approach the late stages of close games in caution mode.
"In the first 60 games, that's how it is," Iginla said. "It's probably that way in the first 70 games. Even up to now, you want your point because it hurts so much more when you lose those and think … we were two minutes away from at least getting that [needed]point and we didn't.
"I don't know if that's necessarily the best thing, but it is what it is."
Then there is Flames defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who recalled one of his seasons in Florida when the Panthers and the Montreal Canadiens had to go to the third tie-breaker for the final playoff spot (head-to-head record). The Habs won and advanced, because they'd won a couple of games in shootouts.
"You always want to win – and you always want to take advantage if there's an opportunity to score goals," Bouwmeester said. "Having said that, I think a lot of teams – and people – realize how important all the points are. Ever since the shootout was put in, it's been a dogfight right at the end of the year. And every year, it's the same problem, there are all these three-point games."
It's a particularly sore point in Calgary, where the Flames were a collective 5-15 in extra time – six overtime losses, nine in the shootout – before Wednesday. On a percentage basis, only the Carolina Hurricanes (3-15) have had a worse time of it in extra time.
"It's just so huge now, if you can win those games in overtime and the shootout," Bouwmeester said. "If you take just five of those [OT and/or shootout losses]and turn them the other way, it's a different story for us."