THIRD MAN IN: Wild ‘n Out

Behind the Bench/Sports by

Things are not going well in Minnesota. Three summers ago, Minnesotans watched as their once-beloved Kevin Garnett celebrated his first NBA title as a member of the Boston Celtics. Two weeks ago, they watched in horror as Brett Favre threw an interception late in the fourth to halt the Vikings’ march to their first Super Bowl since 1976. In the NHL, the Minnesota Wild are the epitome of mediocrity, currently wallowing in 11th place in the competitive Western Conference.

However, the Timberwolves lost Garnett thanks to poor management, and the Vikings lost out on a trip to Miami because of a quarterback known for throwing picks. But much of the Wild’s struggles have been totally out of their control, which is why they take the biggest slice of my sympathy. Why do I feel this way? It all comes down to the unfair system the NHL uses to rank its teams in the standings.

Beginning in the 1999-2000 season, the NHL decided to start giving points to teams who lost in overtime. The league justified this move by claiming that teams who held their opponents to a tie at the end of regulation deserved some compensation. So instead of two points being available in every game (two for a win, one each for a tie), there became three available in games that went to an extra frame (two for the win, one for the loss). The system ultimately rewards teams for losing games, and allows clubs with a knack for losing in OT to leapfrog teams with the same amount of wins in the standings.

A week ago, the Wild had 58 points and were looking up at the Detroit Red Wings, who with 64 points held the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. 11 years ago, one might have assumed that the Wings had won three more games than the Wild. But because of the current ranking system, this is not so. As of press time, Minnesota has actually won two more games than Detroit, but the Red Wings have six more overtime losses than the Wild.

Instead of contemplating who should be sent packing at the trade deadline or how the Twins’ new baseball stadium is going to look, Wild fans should be experiencing the thrill of the playoff hunt. Every morning when they look at the sports page, Minnesotans find three teams ahead of theirs, all of whom have fewer wins.

If hockey were truly about winning games, Minnesota would be challenging for the playoffs. Strangely, though, the NHL wants to reward teams for getting close to winning. In 2005-2006, the Edmonton Oilers won one less game than the Vancouver Canucks, but lost five more times in overtime. That was the difference between making the playoffs and missing out. The Oilers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals as the eighth seed, and came within one game of winning it all. Had the NHL not rewarded Edmonton for coming close to winning games, a different Western team would have played in the finals, and the record book might be very different than it is today.

Of course, overtime and shootouts are exciting, and the NHL knows this. But with five minutes left in a tied game, there is no real incentive anymore for a team to go all-out to win. Playing aggressively could very well lead to an odd-man rush the other way, and cost a team the extra point it would have earned by taking the game to overtime. The extra overtime point forces teams to play for overtime and gives fans an exciting product, but only in exchange for a truly competitive game. This fan, for one, would rather see teams play to win, not to tie. The NHL needs to realize that close is only good in horseshoes, and that justice needs to be served in the standings. The Wild should be in the playoff race, not the draft lottery.