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Loser points could produce some unlikely winners in 2021 NHL season

Five of the Penguins' first 10 games reached overtime, guaranteeing them at least one point in the standings. (Bruce Bennett/AP)
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The NHL’s point system is built to assure parity. Teams get two points in the standings for a win of any kind, while an overtime loss, including in the shootout, earns a team one — also known as the “loser point.” And it can make a big difference in the standings.

Loser points made the Pittsburgh Penguins a No. 3 seed in 2018-19. Take away those points, and they barely make the playoffs at the expense of the Montreal Canadiens. (Both would have finished with 88 points — with the tiebreaker, regulation and overtime wins, favoring Pittsburgh by one.) And the Arizona Coyotes would have made the playoffs in the Western Conference that year if not for the loser points boosting the Colorado Avalanche’s record. The New York Islanders, not the New York Rangers, would have played in the qualifying round of last year’s playoffs if the loser points hadn’t given the Islanders the edge.

The loser point creates less separation in the standings, which can create more excitement for more teams as they push for the playoffs. It also can make the postseason race chaotic in a short season as we’re seeing in 2021.

Nearly 29 percent of games have gone past regulation, a significant jump from years past, when the seasons with the most overtime games were 2013-14 (25 percent), 2014-15 (24.9 percent) and 2009-10 (24.5 percent).

In a 56-game season in which teams only play opponents in their own division, those nonregulation standings points become even more crucial. Essentially every game is a “four-point” game, meaning teams can swing the standings four points (adding two for themselves and denying any for their foe) by getting a regulation win. Fail to get at least one point in these matchups, and you can fall out of contention quickly.

“It is huge to get points in a shortened season,” Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle told reporters last week. “You have to find ways to win games, whether it is in regulation or overtime. Those points could be very important at the end of the season.”

The East Division is riddled with teams benefiting from loser points. Entering Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres had gotten at least half of their standings points from overtime games or shootouts, and the Bruins led the league with 10 points from overtime wins and shootouts. The Penguins, in fourth place in the division, had just one regulation win, getting nine of their 11 points from overtime wins and shootouts. The Washington Capitals, fresh off two regulation losses, were close to a 50-50 split, earning eight of 15 points in regulation.

Heading into Friday night, no division leader enjoyed more than a one-point cushion, and the fifth-place team in each division was no more than one point out of a playoff spot. If the league didn’t award any loser points, the races for playoff spots wouldn’t be nearly as close.

The short-season format exacerbates this effect. From 2005-06 to 2019-20, the average team earned 92 points per 82 games, with two-thirds of the league falling within 17 standing points of that average. That’s a distinct spread. If we evaluate this season the same way, teams are earning an average of 93 points per 82 games, with two-thirds of the league falling within three standing points of that average, indicating a much tighter race from top to bottom.

Last season, the Islanders showed what can happen if you just get into the playoffs by any means necessary. That squad was sixth in the Metropolitan Division yet earned 32 of its 80 standings points in overtime or the shootout, enough to give it a spot in the playoffs despite having the second-fewest wins in regulation in the division. They made the most of their opportunity, cruising into the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the eventual champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In 2011-12, the Los Angeles Kings finished 40-27-15 for 95 points and earned the Western Conference’s final playoff spot ahead of the Dallas Stars (42-35-5, 89 points) despite posting two fewer wins. Had it not been for the loser point, the Kings would not have enjoyed their first Stanley Cup title that year.

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