May 20, 2003

The Stanley Cup runneth overtime: Observations after five hours and 52 minutes on the edge of my seat

Rogers Cadenhead"There is nothing better in sports than overtime in the NHL playoffs."

Sporting News NHL reporter Kara Yorio made that declaration after the Anaheim Mighty Ducks defeated the Dallas Stars 4-3 in the fifth overtime of their playoff series opener April 24, and it's one of the things you hear often from NHL diehards about why we love the sport: Once the playoffs begin, overtime games don't end until somebody scores.

As a Dallas Stars fan, I've cultivated a grudging appreciation for the sphincter calisthenics that a true NHL aficionado experiences during playoff OT. It's the next best thing to a high-fiber diet.

During Ken Hitchcock's tenure, you couldn't be a Stars fan without a love of overtime. His commitment to defense-first play and the neutral zone trap were tailor made for one-goal playoff games settled after four or more periods.

In those years, goal scoring machines like Mike Modano and Brett Hull played it safe and sat on one-goal leads like they were being paid by the minute.

In 1999, when Hull shot a completely untainted goal past Dominik Hasek to give the Stars the Stanley Cup over the Buffalo Sabres in triple overtime, I needed a quadruple bypass to recover.

What makes overtime hockey so exciting is the skate-thin margin for error.

"Between periods in the locker rooms, IVs drip fluids into dehydrated athletes, who eat bananas and drink even more liquids to fight off cramping," Yorio writes. "The game may get ugly, but there is drama at every turn. Each mistake could result in a goal. There are rushes of energy from players who have no business having any energy at all. A puck hits the crossbar, a goalie stops a shot he couldn't see. It is edge-of-the-seat action."

I know what she means, but who are we kidding?

There is nothing worse in sports than the multiple overtime game in the NHL playoffs.

It's physically impossible for even the most dedicated puckhead to spend 140 minutes and 48 seconds -- the length of the Ducks-Stars game -- on the edge of your seat.

As the fifth overtime began, my rooting interest in the Stars was far surpassed by my desire to free myself from the sick compulsion to keep watching.

When Petr Sykora scored 48 seconds into the period, securing a win that proved to be enormous in the second-round series, my disappointment was softened considerably by the freedom to finally turn off the game, 5 hours and 52 minutes after it began.

But I'm not alone in my lack of enthusiasm.

"The most memorable moment from the overtimes in Thursday's game was the playing of Pat Boone's cover of the Van Halen tune 'Panama,'" wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Gerry Fraley

"By the end, when everyone was so fatigued and so afraid of making the game-ending mistake, the action went practically in slow motion," AP game reporter Jaime Aron wrote. "[Fans] tried keeping themselves awake by doing the wave before the seventh period."

"You're hoping for a bounce or a break," Modano told Fraley. "The body goes, and the mind goes with it."

If there was anything exciting about that game beyond the first overtime, I must have dozed off and missed it. By the time the game entered its second day of play, Modano, one of the most explosive players on open ice in the league, looked like the Six Million Dollar Man jogging.

Long overtime games are the NHL equivalent of the 0-0 soccer game, a tedious spectacle loved by purists that's pure NyQuil to casual fans. They push some of the sport's biggest moments to a time that only insomniacs, security guards, and Barry Melrose can appreciate.

By the time Hull scored that completely non-controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal in Buffalo, disgusted Sabres fans couldn't even drown their sorrows because all the bars were closed.

The NHL, which already is on shaky ice with declining TV ratings and an impending labor dispute, needs to find a way to resolve overtime games more quickly.

There are several possible solutions. Fraley suggests the worst -- one overtime followed by a shootout -- but there's also four-on-four play after one or two periods or a truly radical idea: Refs who actually call penalties when they occur in overtime.

During the last hour of the Stars game, ESPN announcers Steve Levy and Darren Pang got a little goofy, which is understandable when you're describing a live event at which time has ceased to have meaning.

Levy suggested that after a few overtimes, the NHL should adopt Skins Game rules, declare a tie and let the next game in the series count as two wins instead of one.

There aren't many sports where playoff announcers have all the time in the world to brainstorm ways that the game could have ended 1-3 hours earlier.

Any NHL executive who thinks it was edge-of-your-seat hockey is out of his mind.

Rogers Cadenhead is one of the founders of Sportsfilter.

posted by rcade to commentary at 04:37 PM - 0 comments

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