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Derided at first as a gimmick, the dramatic tiebreaker has been a shot in the arm for the resurgent league

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which serves as a tiebreaker after overtime, is the shiny bauble in a league that had been at risk of becoming as outdated as the slide rule.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 José Théodore said--and switched to his backhand before roofing the puck, launching Théodore'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."

Indeed, if players such as Pierre Dagenais didn't exist, the shootout likely would have created them. Dagenais is Montreal's designated shooter. He is a languid-skating, 10-minutes-per-game left wing with a heavy, target-seeking wrist shot. When coach Claude Julien sent him out to finish off the Atlanta Thrashers on Nov. 22, Dagenais had played less than three minutes of the 65 minutes of regulation and overtime. "You have certain players in mind for the shootout before the start of the game, but if they're not burying their chances, you make a change," he says. "Let's say Dagenais was not one of the guys who went out and missed a bunch of opportunities that night. He didn't create any doubts." In shootouts Dagenais is two for two, both game-winners, including a Dec. 20 wrister that whipped past Ottawa goalie Dominik Hasek's blocker. "I always want to go," Dagenais says of his shootout exploits. "I've got time. I've got the puck. I'm paid to score goals. Why not?"

The NHL can still fine-tune its new toy. It should revisit the eternal issue of the quality of the ice (it's inconsistent even after a quick postovertime scrape by the Zamboni) and should tighten rules about shootout eligibility. On Dec. 9 Vancouver winger Todd Bertuzzi was allowed to shoot against Ottawa even though he had finished overtime in the penalty box. (He made his shot.) The league also can be more proactive in publicizing the stats of shooters and goalies (box, below), giving announcers time to chew on them before the shots are taken. Phoenix center Mike Comrie suggests an award for the shootout scorer with the best percentage, based on a minimum number of shots. Good thinking. The Malik Trophy?

This is the dilemma: If the shootout is an acceptable method for ending a regular-season game, does it lose its legitimacy if the league never considers it worthy of the playoffs? Is it preferable to see a playoff game drag interminably into a fifth, sixth or even seventh period--rare matches that get celebrated in lore but are witnessed only by insomniacs and overcaffeinated puckheads--or to mandate a shootout after, say, two or three overtime stanzas? At present there is no thought of incorporating a contingency shootout into what Quenneville calls "sacred" playoff overtime. As NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell told SI in an e-mail, "I would certainly not support it. ... I would go four-on-four after, say, one overtime period and even three-on-three before a shootout."

The NHL's reflexive response to almost everything is no, but as it ponders flatlined national cable ratings and its relevance among the so-called four major leagues, it should remember that shootouts provide the most collectible of moments: Roberto Baggio's missed penalty kick in the 1994 World Cup final after 120 minutes of play roiled Italians but did not strike most of the other two billion viewers worldwide as illegitimate; Peter Forsberg's sleight of hand on his 1994 Olympic shootout winner was memorialized on a stamp back home in Sweden; and Canada's shootout snub of icon Wayne Gretzky in the dramatic 1998 semifinal loss to Hasek's Czech Republic still stings in Canada. If the notion of a Stanley Cup shootout seems as alien as deciding the Super Bowl on a field-goal-kicking contest or the NBA championship on best of 10 free throws, consider that the longest NFL playoff game lasted only an extra quarter and a half and the 1976 classic Celtics-Suns triple overtime added only three minutes more than a standard regulation period. By contrast, the longest NHL game, between the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Maroons in 1936, ended after 116 minutes, 30 seconds of overtime, almost six full extra periods having elapsed before Mud Bruneteau scored for a 1-0 Red Wings win. Just four postseasons ago the Flyers and the Penguins played into a fifth overtime (92 extra minutes of clock time); in 2003 the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Dallas Stars also went into a fifth OT. (The Ducks won.)

Campbell suggested that 90% of NHL players would be opposed to using the shootout at any juncture in the playoffs. The number is likely higher, but SI found a few who were vaguely supportive. "After three overtimes, yeah, I could see [a shootout]," Ottawa forward and captain Daniel Alfredsson says. "It's going to be a fluke who wins after that anyway. In the tradition of overtime, sooner or later someone makes a mistake because they're too tired. A shootout's just as fair."

Given the choice between willfully following tradition and trying to find a playoff niche for the niftiest idea since the curved blade, the NHL should think long and hard. The answer could be as easy as one-two-three.

goes to OT," says Senators coach Bryan Murray, "I'll think, DON'T RUIN IT BY SCORING--get to a shootout."


Photograph by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

MANO A MANO Postovertime matchups, such as this one between the Islanders' Miroslav Satan and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, have fans, players and coaches on the edge of their seats.



KNOCKOUT Moments before Malik's now famous between-the-legs winner in round 15 (top) of a Nov. 26 shootout, the Rangers celebrated a Jason Strudwick (34) goal.





CLASSIC SHOWDOWN In their Oct. 10 duel, Ottawa's Hasek stoned Toronto's Eric Lindros en route to a victory.