NHL should do everything to avoid playoff marathons

There is likely no organization in sports that respects tradition more than the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club that conducts the annual Wimbledon championships. We can all agree on that, correct?

So two years ago in 2018, both semifinals in the men’s singles went five sets. They were marathons. Kevin Anderson defeated John Isner, 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4, 26-24. The match lasted 6:36. And Novak Djokovic took out Rafa Nadel, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8. That match lasted 5:18.

And do you know how this bastion of tradition reacted? The folks in the hierarchy did not genuflect before the grass courts, they did not talk endlessly about how matches like those reinforced the perception of Wimbledon being the toughest tournament to win.

No. They did exactly the opposite. The All England Club reacted by instituting a final-set tiebreak (upon reaching 12-12) beginning with the 2019 championships.

Wimbledon marched into the future. Or maybe the present.

And tennis did not dissolve.

This, of course, represents an indirect route to Tuesday night’s quintuple-overtime Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs in which Tampa Bay outlasted Columbus, 3-2. The decisive goal was scored at 10:27 of the fifth overtime, which is to say at 90:27 of extra time, which is to say that after 150:27 of hockey and six hours on the clock.

And across the hockey universe, there was near universal endorsement of the tug of war that included a mind-numbing 110:04 of scoreless hockey between Yanni Gourde’s tying goal at 0:23 of the third period and Brayden Point’s winner midway through the eighth period. Six hours and apparently no one could get enough of it. “Epic” was the term most often used to describe the fourth-longest game in NHL history. , during which Jackets netminder Joonas Korpisalo made a record 84 saves. Excitement could not be contained. Except excitement had been contained for about the last two-plus hours of the telecast.

But is it blasphemous to suggest that there were large swatches of tedium throughout extra time? More than that, though, this game became the alleged perfect specimen to cite as evidence that, yes, the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in professional sports to win. That narrative has taken control of the tournament to an obsessive degree that overshadows all other elements. Why care about that? Do you think Patrick Mahomes was tempted to give back the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning the Super Bowl because it was too easy?

The playoffs have increasingly become a war of attrition and less a test of skill. Teams are battered after the first two rounds then have another two to go. No wonder the level of hockey in the Cup finals is rarely memorable. Macho, macho hockey.

But just the way that 26-24 decisive sets at Wimbledon are a thing of the past, so should eight-period, six-hour hockey games. Yes, of course I marveled at the effort on Tuesday. It is inspirational. But there were few scoring chances.

By the middle of the second OT, the game was being played at two-thirds speed. By the third, and certainly the fourth and fifth, players perhaps had the capacity for 20-second bursts.

No one sits on the edge of his or her seat for six hours, even a comfy one in front of 75-inch screen. No network executive (at least in the U.S.) wants to devote six hours of air time to a single hockey game. By the way, U.S. television and media-rights deals are up following 2021-22. You should expect that playoff overtime will be a topic of conversation.

It is time. I have suggested for years that the opening two rounds of the playoffs should be best-of-five in order to limit the punishment incurred by the athletes. The best brand of hockey should be displayed in the finals. It is, after all, the sport’s showcase. But rarely is it that way. And tradition is only worth maintaining when it serves the present.

Players no longer use wood sticks and go without helmets. Goaltenders no longer play without masks. The boards are littered with advertising. Bench clearing brawls long ago were legislated out of existence. There are soon going to be 32 teams, not Six. It is time.

Maintaining five-on-five for the first overtime is appropriate. As of Thursday, 50 of the past 63 playoffs games were decided within 20 minutes of extra time, with 30 of the past 71 OT matches ending within the first 6:00. Most teams attack in overtime. The quality of hockey in the first overtime is most often breathtaking.

But If 20 minutes of overtime at five-on-five is not decisive, the second overtime period should become four-on-four or three-on-three. I’m uncertain whether four-on-four would tend to decide or extend games. Coaches would have the opportunity to direct, careful, conservative, cautious hockey. That is not what anyone else would want. Playoff shootouts are a bridge too far for me. At least at this point. But NHL people should not close the door on the possibility and should not close their minds to it. Competitively, it is not ideal. But from an entertainment perspective, well, that’s a completely different story, isn’t it?

If not four-on-four, then three-on-three — which, everyone should be reminded, controls teams’ playoff destinies through the regular season. The idea for the league is to design a format that does more than simply decide games, it is to create entertaining, attention-demanding, compelling hockey. No one is turning off three-on-three.

Carli Lloyd scored from midfield in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, Alex Morgan scored five goals in the first game of the 2019 Women’s World Cup and Mia Hamm scored more goals than anyone ever.

But the most famous goal in U.S. soccer history was scored by Brandi Chastain. On a penalty kick. At the Rose Bowl. To win the 1999 World Cup.

Didn’t hurt the sport.

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