As the Caps once again find themselves fighting for a playoff spot late in the season, the impact of the "3 point game" becomes more and more evident to Caps fans, as we (as well as fans of every other team trying to get in) watch our team struggle to gain ground in a league where few teams ever seem to actually "lose".
The extra point given to losing teams in overtime or shootouts, often referred to as the "loser point" or "Bettman point", represents a compromise, an incentive for teams to be more aggressive during the overtime period. It is something that has evolved naturally out of the old system that allowed ties in regular season games, as the sport of hockey has becoming more popular and more competitive. As the nickname "Bettman point" suggest, many people seem to blame Bettman for the current system, however the extra-point system was actually tried in other leagues, such as the AHL, before he become commissioner; and while I'm certainly not the biggest fan of Mr. Bettman, I do believe this rule was more a natural progression of the rules than something he forced upon us.
To better understand WHY the loser point exists and, more importantly, how to fix it, you have to look at the history of how it came to be:
Prior to the '83-84 season, regular season NHL games were played for three 20 minute periods, after which the winning team would be awarded 2 points in the standings. If the score was tied after 60 minutes of play, the game ended in a tie and both teams were awarded a single standings point. In 83-84, the overtime rule was put into affect, and if after 60 minutes of play the score was tied, both teams would play up to an additional 5 minutes of sudden-death 4-on-4 hockey before a tie would be awarded.
While in essence, this would seem like an effective way to reduce the overall number of ties and encourage competition, it had a negative effect as well: Teams, not wanting to come away from a contest empty handed, would often skate extremely conservatively during the OT period, focusing less on winning the game, and more on simply "not losing", in an effort to save the single point they were guaranteed if the game finished in a tie.
Starting with the 1999-2000 season, the league once again revised it's rules, hoping to once again encourage competitive and aggressive play in OT, and began awarding teams a single standings point if the games was tied after 60 minutes, regardless of the result of the OT period. If a team was able to score during the 5 minutes OT period, they would get the full 2 points for a win, and the losing team would get a single point for the overtime loss (OTL).
While this solved the problem of boring, defensive play during overtime, it certainly was far from perfect. Ties -- which most fans hate -- still occurred, and now you had a 4th column in the standings column, making it even harder for the average casual fan to figure out what the hell was going on. This, of course, was also the rule that started the whole "3-point game" scenario as well, meaning some games would have more effect on the overall standings because more points were awarded in then in others.
Coming out of the lockout for the 05-06 season, the NHL finally did away with ties completely by introducing the shootout, which would determine the winner of a game if, after 5 minutes of OT, neither team had scored in sudden-death. I think most fans embraced the idea of no more ties (at least this fan did), and the shootout added an very exciting element as entertainment for fans -- but there were (and still are) 2 lingering issues even with this current setup: (1) winning teams are now determined by what many classify as a "skills competition" at best, and a "gimmick" at worst, and (2) there still exists the 3rd extra point for the team that loses in either OT or the SO.
So...how do you fix it? Or, if you don't think the system is broken in it's current format, how to you make it better? Ideally, you go a playoff style overtime, where teams simply play until someone scores and an outright winner can be determined, but let's face it, as exciting as those long playoff games can be, that simply wouldn't work for regular season. Could you imagine a team playing triple overtime in the first of a back-to-back...or even the second?!? Nope, that doesn't work. I've heard proposals of adding an addition 5 minutes of 3-on-3, which may mean less shootouts, but starts to creep into the "gimmicky" area itself in my opinion. Many also suggest simply eliminating the loser point altogether, but that means that the shootout, which now simply serves as a means to an end, would not only be awarding the winning team, but taking points away from the losing team as well (in other words, if you do away with the loser point, I think you need to do away with shootouts determining games as well).
Personally, I'm not saying I have the answer, and I'd love to see some suggestions in the comments, but here's what I personally would like to see:
1. Extend overtime. No 3-on-3 or anything like that, just make OT longer. I think 8 minutes would be ideal, but 10 minutes probably wouldn't wear out the players that much more either. This would greatly reduce the number of games that need to go to shootout (making those who hate the shootout happy), but would still allow it to be used in the event of stalemated game (making those who love the shootout [EDIT: and/or those that hate ties] happy). In the end, it's better for a game to end with winner during actual hockey play.
2. Make every game worth 3 points. Win a game in regulation, get 3 points, win a game in OT/SO, get 2 points, lose a game in OT/SO, get 1 point. You keep the extra incentive to play aggressively to get the extra points without really disrupting the current system, but you eliminate the watered down effect you get from the system where some games award 2 points and others award 3, plus as an added bonus, this type of system will encourage teams to win in regulation vs. sitting back and allowing overtime to happen, as that single loser point isn't as nearly as valuable compared to a full 3 points for a regulation win. I know many argue that moving a system like this make season point records obsolete, but so what? This is a league that has seen tons of changes, such as the OT rules I outlined above, even number of games played and the quantity of other teams in the league. It's not like other records categories, like goals scored, hold up across the various eras of NHL hockey.
Again, I know there is no right or wrong answer here, and I am curious to see what other folks here think, but I personally would love to see less shootouts (although the Caps seem to be doing a pretty good job of avoiding them this season), and less impact on the standings when a game goes to OT...so this would be my proposed solution.