Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo made 85 saves yesterday.
And his team lost.
“Defense wins championships” has always been a flawed mantra. Defense can get you a tie. Offense wins, and the Blue Jackets didn’t muster enough of it to beat Tampa Bay.
But we’re not here to talk about the urgent need to rebuilding the second-worst offense in the NHL’s Eastern Conference (what in the world happened to the Red Wings?). We’re talking about tiebreakers.
Even during yesterday’s broadcast, the commentators were debating whether endless overtimes were the best way of settling a stalemate. At some point, do you try playing 4-on-4? Then 3-on-3? Then a shootout?
College soccer used infinite overtimes for a while. In 1974, Howard University — yes, the school from which VP nominee Kamala Harris graduated — avenged a three-year battle with the NCAA by defeating St. Louis in four overtimes. They played eight overtimes in 1982 (Indiana over Duke, alas) and 1985 (UCLA over American, alas).
In 1989, the duel between future USMNT coaches Bruce Arena (Virginia) and Steve Sampson (Santa Clara) ended in a tie. Four overtimes were enough, and the teams were declared co-champions. (Steven Goff wrote the game story for The Washington Post.)
The next two finals — UCLA over Rutgers in 1990 (apologies to Alexi Lalas), Virginia over Santa Clara in a 1991 game featuring 64 fouls —also went four overtimes but were then decided on penalty kicks. Since then, the NCAA has gone with more sensible tiebreaker — penalties after two overtimes.
But penalty kicks are a lottery. They test nerves more than they test skill.
The NASL of the 1970s had a more novel solution. The “shootout” wasn’t from the penalty spot. Hand an attacker the ball 35 yards from goal, blow a whistle and go one-on-one. That innovation gave us the legendary juggle-and-chip clutch performance from the Cosmos’ Carlos Alberto:
Carlos Alberto liked the shootout. So did Rodney Marsh. So did Johan Cruyff, who said in the great Cosmos documentary Once in a Lifetime that they should try it in Europe.
Kids loved it. I attended some U.S. pro games in the 90s in which kids were rooting for a shootout instead of rooting for either team.
Eric Wynalda is surely a little less enamored, having been badly injured when facing Garth Lagerwey in 1998. That’s probably not going to happen on a penalty kick. (Excuse me — “kick from the mark,” to use the official term for the tiebreaker.)
And even with the thumbs-up from legendary internationals in the NASL, the shootout was seen as an Americanization. Soon after he took office more than two decades ago, MLS commissioner Don Garber got rid of the shootout. Before long, regular-season games were allowed to end in a tie.
Ironically, the NHL went the other direction. Regular-season games now go to a 3-on-3 overtime, then a shootout.
Shootouts, in soccer and in hockey, are fun. They’re also nice and simple.
My favorite tiebreaker is no longer used, as far as I know. In Georgia high school football, officials used cones in overtime to mark the farthest point to which each offense had progressed. If no one scored in overtime, look at the cones. If Athens Academy’s offense made it to the 20-yard line at some point and Prince Avenue Christian’s offense only made it to the 40, Athens Academy wins, and the world is a better place.
The “penetration” rule is gone, perhaps because the juvenile jokes were just too much. That’s a pity, because it was a tangible reward of the team that accomplished the most in the extra period.
Soccer has seen a few efforts to do the same thing, most notably the idea of awarding the win to the team that earns the most corner kicks in extra time, giving teams incentive to come out and play.
Being a nerd, I used to kick around the idea of taking it a step farther and awarding “tiebreak points” on extra time. A shot that hits the woodwork could be three points. A shot that requires a save could be three points. A corner could be one. Today, we could put all this in the hands of the expected-goals calculators.
Fair? Perhaps. But not simple. And maybe not fun.
And that’s the three-prong test — fairness, fun and simplicity.
The same test applies when determining the champion of a season. The fairest way is the traditional English league system — double round robin, home and away. The next fairest is probably the NFL’s playoff system, which exists because it’s impossible to have teams play 31 games. (Promotion/relegation would be interesting, but pro football would have serious issues without its rivalry games. What would Eagles fans do if they couldn’t crow about outnumbering Washington Football Team fans at the lonely suburban stadium for which the WFT fled RFK Stadium?)
Until 1968, baseball was fair. Two separate leagues, with the winners of each playing in the inaccurately named World Series. The introduction of divisions wasn’t too much of a wrinkle, but when baseball split into several divisions with an absurd one-game wild-card playoff, baseball’s postseason just became another gimmicky tournament. Declaring a winner in which a team doesn’t even use half of its pitching rotation is nonsense.
Playing a long series should reward the better team, and it’s indeed rare to see the NBA Finals proceed without two worthy teams. The NHL is an oddball — as we Washington Capitals fans know all too well, the Presidents Trophy awarded for regular-season success is a Stanley Cup curse.
The least fair championship event is also the most popular — the NCAA basketball tournament, with its single-game format and large number of qualifiers setting the stage for upsets that make the tournament exciting but also wipe out the accomplishments of so many teams. Two of Duke’s three best teams — 1986 and 1999 — lost in the final, while more modestly talented teams in 1991 and 2010 won it all.
But we love it. And we probably don’t have a viable alternative short of a national league that would ramp up student-athlete travel from impractical to impossible.
Most countries’ soccer systems get the best of both worlds. Consistency’s reward is a league championship, a European league berth or promotion. The FA Cup has the folklore of legendary upsets.
Little wonder we have pockets of support for a stronger Open Cup for men, along with a new Cup for women. The NWSL Challenge Cup and the MLS Is Back tournament could end up being proof of concept rather than a 2020 one-off.
The broadcast partners probably won’t go along with indefinite extra time, though.