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'It's a different look': Regulation wins more important in NHL's shortened season

Paul Maurice is cheering for only one thing when he watches two North Division rivals hit the ice from his couch.

Paul Maurice is cheering for only one thing when he watches two North Division rivals hit the ice from his couch.

The Winnipeg Jets head coach wants the result decided inside 60 minutes — and definitely not in overtime or a shootout, where the losing side gets an extra point in the standings.

"You've just got your fingers crossed every night that maybe there's a blowout so you can rest easy towards the end of the game," Maurice said with a little smirk. "You're cheering for both teams in the last five minutes in a tie game. 

"Don't care which one, just as long as one of them scores." 

Regulation wins are always important in the NHL as the second tiebreaker in the standings behind points percentage, but perhaps never more than in this truncated, 56-game season with division-only play as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it's all said and done, teams in the North Division — consisting of Canada's seven franchises and created out of necessity due to border restrictions — will have played as many as 10 head-to-head matchups.

A win is a win, but securing that two-point victory in regulation widens or tightens the gap between opponents compared to a guaranteed three-point result decided after normal time.

In an 82-game season, a Western Conference team wouldn't think twice about going to overtime against an opponent from the East.

Not so in 2021.

"You've got to try to give yourself some space," Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau said. "You don't want to see three-point games. Every point is crucial. When you are playing this amount of games against your divisional (rivals), every point matters."

"It's a different look," Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins added. "Getting the extra point with an overtime win is still going to be important — we still want that extra point — but at the same time we want to limit the other teams' points."

The NHL began awarding a point for overtime losses ahead of the 1999-00 season before incorporating shootout defeats into the rule when ties were eliminated following the 2004-05 lockout.

The system has been criticized for not providing teams enough of an incentive to push for regulation wins, but the pandemic — at least for this season — might nudge some in that direction as the abbreviated schedule progresses and knife-edged playoff races heat up.

"It's something we talked about before the season," Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza said. "You don't want to find yourself in a slew of overtimes. 

"If you can beat teams in regulation, it creates a little more of a gap."

The Oilers lost their only OT contest up to this point, but avoided another extra-time affair when they scored with less than a second to go in the third period against Winnipeg late last month.

"You certainly think about those," Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said of the point denied the Jets that night. "We've talked about those. It's funny, not just our games, but you're watching other games around in our division (and) hoping for no three-point games. There's extra points available. If one team gets two and the other team gets none, you're way better off. 

"That's something that's certainly going to be a factor moving forward."

Flames head coach Geoff Ward, meanwhile, has already started counting.

"The division is tight," he said. "Those extra points add up by the end of the year."

But Maurice said he doesn't expect it to be a factor in the level of urgency during games — at least for now.

"There's no difference on the bench," he said. "Nobody's saying, 'Hey we've got to get this one in regulation.' The intensity ramps up as a game goes, especially a close game, a tie game. 

"I don't think you're running your top end harder to get the win, because that happens naturally." 

Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green said he isn't focused on how victories are secured.

"We dwell on the process, doing it the right way," he said. "And at the end of the game, we should look up and be happy with the results. 

"I don't think we need to talk about needing to win in regulation."

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said with so much out of players' control, they can only worry about individual performances.

"Whether it's in regulation or overtime, you can't dictate those types of things," he said. "The race is going to be tight all year. It's probably going to come down to the very last couple of games. 

"We believe wins and losses take care of themselves." 

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said avoiding overtime as much as possible has been a topic of conversation around his team.

"Absolutely. We've talked about those three-point games," he said. "You don't like to see three-point games being shared. 

"It probably has a little bit more emphasis with this year's situation the way we're all set up."

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe hasn't discussed regulation versus overtime or shootouts with his roster since the games started, but adds the benefits and drawbacks are clear.

"You want to win every game in regulation," he said. "Even more so with every point remaining in the division."

Toronto captain John Tavares added he isn't concerned about what the six other Canadian teams are doing, preferring instead to focus on his group. 

"We want to take care of our business and not really leave it up to that," he said. "If we play the way we're capable and continue to push the envelope and continuously try to get better ... hopefully those things don't matter."

But Ward said banter about avoiding overtime — both in Calgary's games and when watching North Division tilts from afar — is already a hot topic around the Flames' locker room.

And that's likely going to continue all season.

"The division's great ... it's tight," he said. "It's going to be that way right to the end."

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press