NHL shootouts no perfect science

Updated: December 29, 2005, 2:33 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The NHL's shootout is like the light show at a concert. It has little to do with the music, but you'd miss it if it weren't there.

And so it is with the shootout, the NHL's guilty little pleasure.

Some coaches hate it. Others are dismissive of it. It makes many players nervous, while others love the adrenaline rush. Regardless, fans love it to death.

Jaroslav Spacek
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesShootouts could make or break a team that has postseason hopes.

Do you think anyone left Madison Square Garden disappointed the night Marek Malik dazzled the Rangers crowd with a shot between his legs to end the season's longest shootout affair? Not a chance.

The Capitals' Olaf Kolzig, in net for the marathon of penalty shots, said there was playofflike electricity that coursed through the venerable old arena.

It is so wherever the shootouts take place. And admit it, when you're watching a game, either at home or on television, you're hoping no one scores to upset those ties so it goes to a shootout.

"When you win one, it's a great feeling. When you lose one, you feel crappy," Nashville netminder Tomas Vokoun said.

Although fans have fallen in love with the spectacle that follows 60 minutes of regulation hockey and five minutes of four-on-four overtime hockey, it has been a learning process for coaches, shooters and netminders.

In many ways, the shootout is alchemy: part sorcery, part science; part guesswork, part mind over matter.

Go with your gut?

Or go with the odds?

Try a new move? Or the tried and true?

Challenge the shooter? Or stay in the net?

All these conflicting notions are at play every time there is a shootout. And though some traditionalists view the new wrinkle to the game as gimmicky, it is -- in the final analysis -- a crucial element of the game, given what's at stake.

Best and Worst
Rank Team SO record (place in conf.)
1 Nashville 4-1 (W-4th)
2 N.Y. Rangers 4-1 (E-5th)
3 Washington 4-2 (E-14th)
4 Dallas 3-0 (W-5th)
5 L.A. Kings 3-0 (W-2nd)
26 San Jose 1-4 (W-12th)
27 Boston 0-2 (E-13th)
28 Florida 0-2 (E-12th)
29 Anaheim 0-3 (W-11th)
30 Atlanta 0-4 (E-9th)

Don't believe us?

Heading into Wednesday's game against Philadelphia, the Atlanta Thrashers found themselves three points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Guess what their record in the shootout was? 0-4. Four lost points.

Take Anaheim. Through Dec. 26, the Ducks were ninth in the Western Conference, three points out of the final playoff berth. Their shootout record? 0-3.

Dallas and Los Angeles both began the week 3-0 in the shootout. The two teams were tied for first place in the Pacific Division, and by the end of the season, it is likely one will win that division and enjoy home-ice advantage at least through the first round of the playoffs in part because of its proficiency at the shootout.

With about 10 percent of games decided by a shootout (56 times in the first 537 games), that's roughly eight points per team that hang in the balance over a full season. Playoff lives will hang in the balance. Home-ice advantage in the playoffs, a perk that can mean millions of extra dollars in revenue and improved chances of winning a Stanley Cup, will be decided by the shootout.

"It's a point, and it's a valuable point that's sitting right there for you," New York Islanders coach Steve Stirling said.

Washington coach Glen Hanlon predicted that, given the parity in the league, teams will go to a shootout in the final game of the regular season with a playoff berth on the line. Traditionalists will blanch at the thought, while fans will be standing in the aisles waiting for it to unfold.

ESPN.com is taking a look at the shootout from three different perspectives, that of the coach, the shooter and the goaltender. Today, we start with the men behind the bench.

The Coaches

Coaches spend countless sleepless nights coming up with power-play strategies, defensive schemes and breakout patterns. But the shootout is often the classic battle of gut instinct over playing the odds.

Do you go with your three best players?

Do you go with the guy with the hot hand that particular night?

Do you go with the guy that maybe needs a jump start?

Do you go with the kid who wins every shootout competition at practice?

As always, it's the end result that counts, not the thought process that got you there.

Alexander Ovechkin
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesSharp shooters like Alexander Ovechkin are virtual locks in a shootout.

"Look like a hero, look like a bum, nothing in between," said Stirling, whose team is 3-2 in shootouts.

In spite of a lineup that boasts snipers Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov and Peter Bondra, the Thrashers had failed to score a goal, let alone win a game, in their first two shootouts. Atlanta coach Bob Hartley promised he had "something up my sleeve" for the next one. And sure enough, there was defenseman Greg de Vries penciled into the third spot behind Kovalchuk and Hossa.

"Every time we do the shootout, he's by far our best scorer," Hartley insisted.

But de Vries lost control of the puck and missed his chance at shootout glory.

"Yeah, yeah, and he missed, he missed the corner," a chagrined Hartley said after.

In the same game, Blackhawks coach Trent Yawney also eschewed the stat sheet and went to the gut, using defenseman Jaroslav Spacek and winger Mikael Holmqvist, who hadn't had a shot on net during regulation or overtime.

"Just trying to shuffle the deck," Yawney told reporters after the game. "Spacek always scores. And Marty [Lapointe] actually gave me a look and said, 'Pick Holmqvist.'"

Can one coach a team to a better shootout?

Most teams employ video of opposing goalies in an effort to school shooters on the tendencies of opposing goaltenders. And then there is the old standby of practice, practice, practice, although the challenge for coaches is to recreate the urgency that comes with the real thing.

Dallas coach Dave Tippett, whose team is perfect in shootouts, has tried to up the ante in practice, setting up competitions between players. Skaters are divided into teams and the team that loses the shootout competition has to do extra skating. Players often make side bets on whether a teammate will score, adding a little drama to the proceedings.

Tippett has also been unafraid to think outside the box, using defenseman Sergei Zubov and rookie Jussi Jokinen as regular shooters. They are a combined 5-for-6.

"He's just so talented and so poised," Tippett said of Zubov. "It became obvious very early on he was going to be a good shootout player."

"The system has worked so far," Tippett added. "But if things go bad, you're always open to new ideas. There's got to be a little bit of feel for the game. It is what it is. But it's still a competitive part of the game and you're working on it as intensely as you would your power play or your penalty kill."

Hanlon said there are just some guys who will be on your list, doesn't matter whether a guy shoots 100 feet wide all night. Guys like Alexander Ovechkin, who is by far the most accurate player in the league in the shootout, having netted five of six shots.

Still, Hanlon recalls New York Rangers coach Tom Renney insisting there is no science to the art of picking the right players for the shootout.

Indeed, former Penguins coach Ed Olczyk resorted to a little mysticism before being replaced by Michel Therrien. After handing in his initial list of shooters, Olczyk wouldn't watch his shooters. Sometimes he would watch the opposing team's shooters, but never his own.

"That's it. Straight down," Olczyk said of his staring pattern. "When I wasn't watching, I was listening and I heard the reaction of the crowd, so I tried to turn it around so I only watched them and I didn't watch us. So I kind of went back and forth. The only say I have is who shoots, but other than that, it's the routine I follow."

Most coaches watch.

"Once I hand in the list, I'm a fan," Hartley said.

Shortly after his Islanders won a shootout against Pittsburgh in which 18 shots were taken, Stirling said there are a number of factors that come into play when he fills out his list or begins tapping players on the shoulder as the shootout moves to sudden death.

Obviously, there are scorers like Miroslav Satan and Alexei Yashin. But on the night in question, Stirling went to Trent Hunter early because Hunter had been struggling and needed "a jump start." Hunter scored, and the Islanders went on to win.

The shootout process can reveal a number of things about a player, sometimes tapping into a hidden core of emotion. "In the shootout, you see that. I saw some emotion from guys you don't usually see it from," Stirling said.

Once the list of three is used up and the shootout continues, coaches sometimes are swayed by body language, guys who are rising off the bench, nodding and staring, like Jason Blake, who scored the winner against Pittsburgh after waving like an excited schoolboy.

"And then, there were guys that weren't looking at me, so I knew they didn't want to go out there," Stirling said.

There is also a school of thought that younger players, who had played in the AHL where the shootout has been used for several seasons, would be good shootout options for NHL coaches. Hanlon found, though, that when he asked one of his young players if he was ready to go in an NHL game, the player looked stricken.

"It was like I had hit him in the stomach," Hanlon said.

Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said that he always watches his players in practice to see who's doing well and that that observation will have an impact on who makes his list in live action.

"Some people just don't do well on breakaways," Laviolette said.

Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock admitted he has had trouble incorporating the shootout into his coaching philosophy.

"I have a tough time practicing that. I have a tough time spending time on it," Hitchcock said. "To me, if it was in overtime, that's a win, that's part of the game. This is like a free point. My attitude probably has to change because those points end up being just as important. It's hard when there's no emotion. There's extreme emotion in the stands. It's really at a high level. And there's real intensity on the shooter and the goalie, but other than that, you're kind of a spectator. You're almost a fan yourself."

Hitchcock has a list from which he works, but the veteran coach has shown he's open to suggestions -- as he was against Florida when the Flyers won their first post-Christmas game in a shootout.

When the score was still tied after the first three shooters, forward Donald Brashear suggested Hitchcock try Michal Handzus, who went on to score the winner. How did Brashear get Hitchcock's attention?

"He was standing this close to me," Hitchcock said, holding his hands inches apart.

(Check back Friday as we look at the shootout from the perspective of the shooters.)

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.