The extra points awarded in the for losing in overtime or a shootout always make a difference. This season, though, they’re making twice as much of a difference in the NHL Western Conference – at least in the early going.
Through Wednesday, February 20th, the NHL has played a total of 235 games. In 58 of those games nobody was able to win before overtime, creating an extra point for the team that eventually lost either in that overtime period or a shootout. Just 21 of those points – or 36.1 percent – came in the Eastern Conference. The other 37 – or 63.9 percent – came from games in the Western Conference.
It makes sense that teams would shift downward when they’re tied late in the third period of a game. If you try too hard to win and leave an opening for your opponent, you could lose in regulation and forfeit the extra point. If you just wait for the 4-on-4 overtime, everyone is guaranteed a point. Then you can try to win, and the worst-case scenario has you walking away with half of what the other guy got.
One could say the skill gap between teams in the Western Conference is smaller than in the Eastern Conference, so they play closer games. Or one could say that there’s simply a slightly more defensive focus in the West, where teams have generated 630 goals compared to the 666 in the East.
Whatever the causes, the fact is that close games are twice as common this season in the Western Conference as they are in the Eastern Conference. All those extra points make for a very crowded playoff picture. The short season already guarantees a pretty small spread between playoff teams and those who just miss the dance, since there are fewer points in play than there would be in a normal season. The difference could be as small as one point this season – and if the current trend keeps up in the Western Conference, there could even be a few teams missing out by that slim margin. The solution for any team looking to avoid such a situation is clear: win games, and win them before overtime arrives.