PITTSBURGH - There was a time when people could invest two and a half hours in an NHL game and not see a winner.
Games routinely ended in ties through the 2005-06 season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have had 383 ties. The season high was 20 in 1970-71. That represented more than one-fourth of the 78-game regular season schedule.
The funny thing was nobody seemed to mind. It was an accepted possibility for ticket buyers.
It was always better to be the team that got the last goal, but some ties left both teams reasonably satisfied.
Each team would get a point, and that was especially valuable when playing away from home.
There is no count on how many times a coach called a tie, "a good point to get on the road."
The lack of a defined winner was an ongoing issue for the NHL, which instituted a five-minute overtime in 1983-84.
But after that five minutes, a tie remained a tie.
The revolution came in 2006-07, when the league added a shootout to follow overtime.
They start with three shooters per side, but keep playing until there's a winner.
The shootout winner gets an extra point in the standings, and that can be critical.
The New York Rangers missed the playoffs last season because they lost a shootout to the Philadelphia Flyers in the last regular season game.
That's the kind of thing that gives players pause. To battle all season and have things come down to a shootout contest doesn't seem quite right.
"I think they're an exciting part of the game for the fans after the overtime," Penguins winger Chris Kunitz said. "It's tough when maybe it decides your fate at the end of the year, whether you're in the playoffs or not. It's not maybe hockey-specific, but I think it's fun the majority of the year."
As a goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury takes a completely pragmatic view of shootouts.
"When I win I like them," Fleury said. "When I don't, I hate them."
Entering Saturday night's home game against Buffalo, the Penguins had only five shootouts in their first 32 games, with a 3-2 record.
Only six players had participated in those five shootouts.
Kunitz succeeded on his only attempt, and it decided a game in the Penguins' favor.
Like a lot of players, he tries to mix things up so he's not too predictable.
"You always want to make the goalie move," Kunitz said. "If you go in thinking you're going to do the same thing the whole way, sometimes the goalie might be in the right spot. If you come in at a different speed, change your angle, try to fake a shot, hopefully it opens things up."
As he coaches prepare their list of shooters to hand to the referee, you'll see players crowded around the bench, gathering information on the goalie.
Penguins goaltender coach Gilles Meloche prepares a scouting report on each opposing goalie, and the shooters will review the tendencies. Goalies will also huddle to talk about the shooters.
"If I watch a game on TV, I like to see a shootout," Fleury said. "I think it's fun, entertaining. I like to see the guys' moves, how the goalie reacts."
Sometimes, the stars of the shootout are unlikely. Former Penguin Erik Christensen, now with the New York Rangers, is an average offensive player who is very successful in shootouts.
Conversely, some gifted scorers don't do well in shootouts. Jaromir Jagr used to beg out of shootouts with the New York Rangers because he wasn't confident in the process.
"Some of the guys who are great offensively rely on their teammates and the ability to make offensive plays from situations," Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato said. "You look at Wayne Gretzky, for example. The reason he was so good was he could use all nine players on the ice, even opponents, and their positioning to make a play that would give his team its best opportunity.
"To slow it down and just have it one-on-one, that doesn't come naturally for some guys. You rely on teammates and situations. I don't think it's that unusual."
It's up to the coaches to pick the best shooters, then hope for the best. That extra point is at stake.
"It's not the perfect way to finish a game, but the fans want it," Granato said. "The best way to look at is we should give the fans what they want.
"If you get to the end of a season and you lose out by a point, maybe you're thinking Gee, we lost seven shootouts, that's not fair. Technically it's not fair, but it is because it's what the people want to see. They understand some of the races may be decided by it."
SUBHEAD: Shootouts by the numbers
It's no surprise that Sidney Crosby has the been the most productive Penguins player on shootouts.
Crosby has converted 40 percent of his chances (21-of-52) and had 13 game-deciding goals.
Other numbers: Pascal Dupuis (38%, 3-8), Chris Kunitz (37%, 10-27), Kris Letang (36%, 16-44), James Neal (35%, 9-26), Steve Sullivan (31%, 9-24), Evgeni Malkin (27%, 9-33) and Arron Asham (0-2).
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has a success rate of .768 (109-for-142) while backup Brent Johnson is similar at .764 (42-55).
SUBHEAD: Remembering the end
The Christmas season brings back memories of Mario Lemieux's spectacular return to the NHL on Dec. 27, 2000.
Lemieux came back after a layoff of three and a half years and had a goal and two assists in a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Civic Arena. He needed less than a minute to set up a goal that night.
But Friday was the sixth anniversary of Lemieux's final game in the NHL, a 4-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice.
Lemieux was bothered by an irregular heartbeat, a condition that was later corrected with surgery.
He played 17:23 in his last game, getting one assist at age 40. In his last nine games, he had no goals and three assists. He scored two goals in his last 16 games.
The official retirement announcement didn't come until Jan. 25, 2006.
"If I could still play this game, I would be on the ice," Lemieux said. "This is it, and it hurts."