The NHL is entering the “two-minute warning” phase of its regular-season, and this year it can boast of one of the most thoroughly compelling ends to a regular-season in recent memory because of a points system that helps the league sell hope to hockey fans for as long as possible.
I’ve argued recently that, for the sake of competitive integrity, the NHL ought to do away with its loser-rewarding points system. However, I’ve also said on a number of occasions that the league maintains the system because it functions as it’s intended to function: to create as tight a playoff race as possible in order to help more teams sell more tickets for longer into the regular season, to fans who hope their franchise somehow continues to play after its conclusion.
Never was that more true than on Sunday – the day it felt like the NHL has entered this season’s equivalent of the two-minute warning of a football game. Eight games were played, and every one of them had playoff implications.
The Capitals solidified their hold on the first wild card berth in the Eastern Conference (and stayed a point behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division) with a win over the Rangers; the Panthers kept their playoff hopes alive – and damaged the post-season aspirations of the division rival Senators – with a victory over Ottawa; the Isles kept pace on the Pens (who beat San Jose in a shootout Sunday to all but smother the Sharks’ decade-long playoff streak) with a win over the Red Wings, who now are only three points ahead of the Bruins for third spot in the Atlantic.
But wait, there was more: Boston eked out a 2-1 overtime win over Carolina to put three points of breathing room between themselves and the Sens; the Predators missed a chance to gain ground on the Blues for first in the Central Division after their 5-2 loss to the Flames, who are now just two points behind Vancouver for second in the Pacific; the Ducks beat the Devils to maintain their hold on top spot in the league; and Chicago got a late goal from captain Jonathan Toews to beat Winnipeg 4-3, simultaneously regaining third place in the Central over Minnesota, and hurting the Jets’ post-season dreams.
That’s about as good a Sunday as any professional league can hope for. With two weeks left in the season, every game’s outcome resonates meaningfully with at least one group of fans. And that wasn’t just a one-day phenomenon, either: there are six games scheduled for Monday, and again, all six have intrigue to them; four will have an effect on the playoffs, while the other two (Edmonton vs. Colorado and Buffalo vs. Arizona) will impact the draft lottery to see which team gets young superstar Connor McDavid.
Just about every market in the league, in one way or another, has some emotional skin in the game. The Leafs are abysmal, but their fans are also delirious with McDavid Fever and care about the result of every game they have left. Thanks to an 8-2-0 record in their past 10 games, the Stars have crept back into the playoff race, vaulted over the Sharks for 10th in the West and currently sit six points behind the Jets for the final wild card slot with six games to play. It’s a long-shot, but it keeps the hope pipeline open in Dallas for a few more days – and fans should never lose sight of the fact the NHL is a hope-based industry.
The NHL doesn’t sell winning to its fans. Only one franchise gets to deliver on that advertising each season. The league sells hope – the hope that winning all the games that matter is something that will happen this season, or in the case of sad-sack teams, that it will take place in the near-future. When you see fans start to abandon teams – as they did in recent years in Florida and Arizona after years of either mismanagement or relocation rumors – it’s because the hope pipeline has run dry. That’s what the points system is working to do: keep each of the 30 spouts from the main pipeline open for as many days as possible.
You can criticize the NHL for many things – and goodness knows, I do – but it’s difficult to envision the NHL’s system working much better than it does at the moment. Hockey still matters in virtually all of the league’s cities, and nearly every game on the calendar still means something. Not every league can boast of such good fortune.