Don't like OT? Alternative could be 'Idol' and Melrose

Updated: April 19, 2007, 1:37 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The opening game in the Canucks-Stars first-round series ended at 12:32 a.m. in Vancouver, 2:32 a.m. in Dallas, and -- in homage to George Carlin's Hippy-Dippy Weatherman -- 6:42 a.m. in Baltimore.

It summoned memories of, or at least references to, Detroit's 1-0 victory over the Montreal Maroons in 1936, when the game lasted well into a sixth overtime before the Wings' Mud Bruneteau ended it and Maroons star Hooley Smith must have been hanging his head in disappointment.

And the archival footage was pulled up, showing the Flyers' Keith Primeau finally beating the Penguins in a fourth overtime seven years ago; the Capitals twice losing similar marathons, falling to the Islanders and Pat LaFontaine in 1987 and to the Penguins and Petr Nedved in 1996; Uwe Krupp finally clinching a Stanley Cup for Colorado and its long-starved fans in '96, scoring in the third overtime of Game 4 at Miami.

Don't you sometimes think: There's got to be a better way?

Don't you sometimes get to wondering after one of the marathon sudden-death overtime playoff games? After a night when you tried to stick with it on television, but the cold medicine kicked in and you went to bed not knowing who won? After a night when the usher you've gotten to know couldn't leave, either, and had to be on the job at the hospital at 6 in the morning? When you knew that if you left, you'd be kicking yourself later? And when you couldn't talk the concession stand supervisor into reopening? After a night when it seemed the game never would end and the last team awake would win?

So let's go over some of the possibilities, all based on the premise that they all kick in after only one full 20-minute period under normal five-on-five conditions of sudden death. Also, the referees know that under any plan, they will be backed if they keep calling it as if it is the second period and nobody can credibly grouse that, well, yeah, it might have been a penalty. No Andy Van Hellemond swallowing his whistle.

It could be one full five-on-five overtime period, and then:

• Shootout.
It's good enough for the biggest event in sports, soccer's World Cup. It's good enough for the Olympics and for Sweden, which put Peter Forsberg on a postage stamp and enabled him to tease his future NHL teammate, Paul Kariya, about how things turned out. It's good enough for the NHL's regular season.

It's a contrivance, but now that it's a confirmed and (if not universally) accepted part of the game on a virtually nightly basis and helps decide who is in the playoffs, the possibility exists to extend it to a more "legitimate testing" of five shooters.

If you're not as good at the shootout for whatever reason, if the shootout is like a coin flip that always comes up tails, then it's up to you to go for broke in the final minutes of sudden death.

• Four-on-four.
The ice suddenly is opened up, as if someone just took out a few rows and dropped in an international ice sheet and 15 extra feet of width. It suddenly looks like the Olympics or a game at one of the NCAA programs that plays on an international sheet. Yes, it looks like the five minutes of regular-season overtime, and, at least in theory, there is a greater likelihood of good scoring chances and an actual goal -- sooner. And if anyone grouses it isn't true hockey, hey, everyone knows, again, that this is coming, and maybe taking it into account even affects the 20-minute five-on-five overtime strategy.

• The combo.
Four-on-four for 10 minutes, then three-on-three for 10 minutes, then a shootout. That's the combination approach. Something, anything, to get it done. And as long as it's the same for both teams.

• Judging.
Designate an elite three-person panel to select a winner, based on everything from gut instinct to scoring chances to zone time. And that's OK, as the judges aren't sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and didn't work the Shane Mosley-Oscar De La Hoya fight in September 2003, when anyone with a brain knew that De La Hoya won easily but didn't get the decision. Don't make it Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, but three bona fide folks with hockey credentials, such as Barry Melrose and …

Almost had you going there for a second, didn't I?

Your revulsion was gathering steam every second.

The point is, there really isn't a better way to do it. The point is, when I or anyone else sits down and tries to come up with an alternative, it always starts with something fairly reasonable and then drifts into the ridiculous pretty quickly.

And I'm not one who views the regular-season shootout as the defacement of a painting hanging in the Louvre. It awards a second point to one of the two teams and gets regular-season customers a decision at a reasonable hour for their $122 a seat. That's all.

It's just that the playoff format is one of the NHL's strengths, contributing to the reality that there is no greater mental and physical postseason test in professional sports than the relentlessness of the Stanley Cup's four rounds. It requires will and, especially for goaltenders, short memories.

The NFL playoffs are a walk in the park, or at least a prance down the sideline before the receiver gingerly steps out of bounds to avoid being hit.

The NBA playoffs involve the same math, but nowhere near the physical and mental toll. Coaches simply have to remember to call 23 timeouts in the final two minutes and draw up plays that become moot after the inbounds pass.

The MLB playoffs are a relative joke, especially since the introduction of pitch counts and set-up men and 51-year-old left-handers brought in to face one hitter for their hard-earned $2.5 million a season. Managers get praised for going by "the book," so they stick to it even when it makes no sense because they know they can't be criticized when it backfires. (Don't get me going about the ruination of baseball, or ESPN will run out of bandwidth.)

Bring on the NHL marathons, when you know the game can suddenly end at any second.

This is one time I'm an absolutist on the issue of traditionalism.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."