Column: Stanley Cup playoff games shouldn’t be decided by 3-on-3 play or shootouts

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo stops a shot against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo stops a shot in front of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ondrej Palat, left, and Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Thursday.
(Elsa Garrison / Getty Images)

Remembering that Mike Milbury, during his playing days, once climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden during a brawl between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers and beat a fan with the fan’s own shoe provides context when trying to make sense of the geographically garbled tweet Milbury posted Tuesday after the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in an epic, five-overtime game in Toronto.

After commenting for NBCSN on a glorious display of clutch goaltending, mind-bending skill and 151 shots on goal in the fourth-longest game in Stanley Cup playoff history, Milbury stepped outside Scotiabank Arena, took a fuzzy picture of a building in the distance behind him, and offered this observation:

“On another worldly night, Space Needle is an appropriate backdrop. Insane Columbus-TB game. God bless both teams for a great effort. Enough tho. I believe we should end these games sooner via 3 v 3 or shootout after a time. Whaddya think?”

Give him the benefit of the doubt and assume spellcheck mangled what should have been “an otherworldly night.” He gets no sympathy after that. The Space Needle is in Seattle — the tall building behind him was the CN Tower. And he was wrong again on the most important point: Stanley Cup playoff games should not be settled via three-on-three play or shootouts.


Playing three-on-three overtime is fine during the regular season. So is settling a game in a shootout. They bring drama and give fans fodder for debates about which players should or shouldn’t have been called on, moments that spice up the boredom of the regular season. But they’re gimmicks and they have no place in the playoffs.

Long overtime games launch legends and create shared memories of selfless efforts. Why discard a part of game that makes the Stanley Cup playoffs distinctive and showcases the fortitude, fitness and competitiveness that inspire players to throw their faces and bodies in front of shots without hesitation?

If the Lightning had defeated the Blue Jackets in three-on-three play or in a shootout, the details would soon be forgotten. But their series opener will long be remembered for Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo’s magnificent effort in making 85 saves — the highest total since the 1955-56 season — and his Lightning counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, being equally brilliant in making a franchise-record 61 saves.

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones shoots against Tampa Bay.
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones looks to shoot during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.
(Elsa Garrison / Getty Images)

If the game had been settled with a contrived shootout after one overtime period or two, Columbus defenseman Seth Jones wouldn’t have taken 76 shifts that totaled 65 minutes 6 seconds, the highest total ice time in one game since the NHL began tracking that statistic in 1997-98. He also took six shots, blocked six and was credited with six takeaways and three hits. It’s exhausting to think about all that. He didn’t even shrug when asked about the toll it took on him.

“I feel fine,” Jones said during a postgame Zoom interview. “Your legs get tired but it’s mental and you’ve got to battle through it. We put our bodies in a position where we can do things like this.”


Exactly. This is what they do best. Let them do it until it’s settled as the game is meant to be played.

True, the long game disrupted the schedule, but only because the NHL must stage multiple games each day in each rink inside the Toronto and Edmonton safety bubbles. The Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes were up next and hung around until the NHL postponed their game to Wednesday morning. An inconvenience, but every hockey player has played early games at youth tournaments. They’ve adapted well to being sequestered and tested and masked. One more adjustment isn’t too much to ask.

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The rescheduled game went to overtime, of course, delaying the start of the Philadelphia Flyers-Montreal Canadiens game on Wednesday by about an hour. “We talked about trying to end this before the fifth overtime,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said after taking a pass from David Pastrnak and scoring the winner 1:13 into the second overtime. Pastrnak missed Thursday’s game, reportedly because he landed awkwardly after he jumped in the air to celebrate Bergeron’s goal. That’s very 2020.

While the NHL has done an excellent job protecting players inside the two bubbles, the real world intruded on the fun and games when Canadiens coach Claude Julien experienced chest pains after his team’s loss to the Flyers on Wednesday and was taken by ambulance to a Toronto hospital. Julien, 60, underwent surgery on Thursday to place a stent in a coronary artery and returned to Montreal to recuperate. Thankfully, the prognosis is good.

General manager Marc Bergevin said Julien’s difficulties weren’t related to COVID-19 and that he doesn’t expect Julien to return during this round. Associate head coach Kirk Muller, a onetime captain of the Canadiens as a player, was given the reins. Should Julien be willing and able to return he’d have to go through quarantine and frequent COVID-19 testing.

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Muller said Friday he had spoken to Julien and described the coach as “relieved” and like his usual self. “He quickly took away from talking about himself and his situation and talked about his team,” Muller said. “We want to keep this thing rolling so we get Claude back here. ... We’ve got a group of guys that want to play well for Claude.”

The Canadiens proved it by overpowering the Flyers 5-0 in Game 2.

Here’s hoping for the best for Julien, a hockey lifer who made his NHL coaching debut in the 2002-03 season with Montreal and won the Cup with the Bruins in 2011.

Good wishes also to Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who announced Saturday he had opted out of the rest of the playoffs. “I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family,” the Vezina Trophy finalist said in a statement.

NBC’s Milbury again showed his ignorance when he criticized Rask’s decision. That’s only more reason to empathize with the goalie’s emotional struggles and hope he finds peace.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Rask’s family — which includes a newborn — was healthy but Rask felt uncomfortable being separated from them. “His priorities are in the right order and this is what he has to do at this time,” Sweeney said in a Zoom interview. “I think we all understand these are trying times for everybody.”

Jaroslav Halak stepped in on short notice to make 29 saves in a 3-1 victory over Carolina that gave the Bruins a 2-1 series lead. Dynamic Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov had to be helped off the ice after sustaining an apparent leg injury, and they’d miss him greatly if he’s out.


And in another recognition of the world beyond the bubble, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Troy Stecher offered a poignant tribute to his late father, Peter, after he scored the go-ahead goal in a solid 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday. Stecher looked up and let loose a heartfelt shout to Peter, who died unexpectedly on Father’s Day.

“I miss my dad every day,” Stecher said in a postgame TV interview. “It was a big goal at a crucial time. We talked about trying to get the win in Game 1 and obviously that gave us the lead and the boys hunkered down. The biggest thing is we got the win.” A true hockey tribute.