Shootouts prevent long Illini hockey games

The Big Pond is silent and 707 pairs of eyes are watching Josh Belmont’s every move.

He picks up speed as he skates the puck towards Michigan State goaltender Brent Schwarz, quickly taps his stick on the ice as if to shoot and that’s when he gets Schwarz to bite. Belmont swiftly drags the puck to his left and slides it around Schwarz, into the net off his backhand. Game over.

While Belmont may have seemed calm and collected as he gave the Illini a 4-3 win over the ACHA D-II defending champion Michigan State, the 19-year-old freshman said it was one of his most nervous moments on the ice.

Before Friday night’s game entered overtime, Belmont stole a glance at the shootout list that head coach Nick Fabbrini handed to the officials. Fabbrini listed him as the Illini’s second shooter and that’s when Belmont became nervous and the stakes got higher.

“I was just praying: ‘Please go in, please go in,’” Belmont said after the five-minute overtime period. “I was waiting for something to go in. It just made me try harder and I was just trying to get any shot.”

Belmont said the key to mastering the shootout is all about keeping the nerves down and staying focused, a mental state the freshman said is difficult to get into when surrounded by the pressure of a shootout.

“You go into your instinct and let it take over,” Belmont said. “You don’t really think through it and when you think too much, that’s when something bad happens.”

In the ACHA regular season, just as the NHL, a game tied after three periods enters a five-minute, sudden-death overtime with four skaters on the ice for each team. If neither team scores within the four-on-four overtime period, the game enters a shootout.

Before the five-minute overtime period starts, both teams’ head coaches must give a shootout list which lists the team’s first three shooters in case the game must be decided in a shootout.

In the shootout, each team gets three chances to score on a breakaway opportunity against the opposing team’s goalie. If the teams are still tied after three chances, then the shootout continues until one team fails to match the other.

While overtime hockey offers a sudden-death excitement that goes unmatched in the world of sports, a grueling 39-game schedule makes playing overtime games impractical, thus the benefit of a shootout. A shootout can end a game with a definite winner and without countless overtime periods.

Shootouts may highlight the skill of an individual skater or goaltender, but according to Belmont, settling a game in overtime offers true insight into which team deserves the win.

“In shootouts, it’s one of those things that doesn’t really depend on the better team,” Belmont said. “Lots of things go into it, so I’d rather see a team win in 4-on-4 or 5-on-5.”

Sophomore John Olen, the other scorer in the Illinois shootout victory Friday night, said he still finds shootouts nerve-racking even after taking a few last season. But now he knows which moves work on different goaltenders.

“I’ve got my move down now, so it’s almost just a force of habit,” Olen said. “I just read off of what the goalie’s doing and kind of slap my stick to freeze him up.”

With both Olen’s pinpoint accuracy and Belmont’s smooth dekes getting pucks past Michigan State goaltender Brent Schwarz, the Illini sealed their fifth straight win, but most players in the locker room said they wished the victory would have come in regulation or even the overtime period.

Fabbrini said shootouts are good for fans, since they offer conclusions to regular season games, but they can never live up to the exciting endings that continuous overtimes can bring to a game.

“Playoff overtime is the best,” Fabbrini said. “When you just play until somebody scores? Those are the best games, for sure.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.