Over the summer, the NHL made a huge change to the way its overtime games are played for the 2014-15 season. It's called 3-on-3 overtime. You might have heard of it.
Over a month into the season, the new rules have turned overtimes into five-minute thrill rides. If you haven't paid much attention to the league's newest late-game spectacle, you should. It's poised to reshape not only how games end but how the playoff races end as well.
Let us explain.
Is 3-on-3 overtime fun to watch?
Oh, man. It's incredible.
The real winners in all of this are the fans: 3-on-3 overtime is like a tiny dose of playoff hockey thrills and intensity at the end of games. Even if a game is a deadlocked, grinding battle for 90 minutes, the resulting overtime can immediately dial the excitement level all the way to "MAXIMUM" as soon as the puck drops.
At least, that's how it went for the first week of the season as teams scrambled to develop strategies. What's more interesting is how the overtime plays out now that teams have settled into it. Even 3-on-3 can become monotonous as both teams cycle the puck in the zone waiting for an opportunity. But oftentimes it takes just one turnover to either make the game a back-and-forth footrace or end the game entirely.
Just watch how quickly one of those end-to-end duels can finish.
The other reason why 3-on-3 works so well is that it presents opportunities for scoring plays that weren't possible with eight skaters on the ice. For instance, Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn can cut through the offensive zone unimpeded, circle around the net and find space out front for a goal with very little traffic to work against.
Goalies have become part of the solution as well. With more room to play the puck in their own zone and fewer opposing defenders to track back, goalies like Detroit Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek can set up goals like this more often.
With 3-on-3, creativity, speed and skill have been let loose within the parameters of actually playing hockey. Overtimes are not only more efficient in ending games, but they've become thrill rides fans scramble to tune into every night.
Is 3-on-3 overtime reducing the number of shootouts?
This was the main idea behind the league's rule change. The numbers indicate that goal is being met.
We're through a month of the NHL season. Of the 42 games that have gone past regulation, 13 (or 31 percent) ended in a shootout. Through the first month last season, there were 33 shootouts in 59 games (56 percent) that went past regulation.
That's a 45 percent decrease.
At this point last season, 15 percent of the league's games had gone to a shootout. This year that number is down to 6 percent. That's a small number of teams who may have lost points due to a skills competition, a change that could pay huge dividends come April.
James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail offers more interesting numbers:
But especially over the past four seasons, the prevalence of the shootout has slowly risen, to the point there were 181 of them in 2011-12 and nearly that many in both of the past two years.
So far, the NHL is on pace for only 76 in 2015-16.
That means the average team could go from taking part in 11 or 12 shootouts a season to only five.
There's no understating how important that is for many teams. Consider the plight of the 2013-14 New Jersey Devils, who went a staggering 0-13 in shootouts and missed the playoffs by five points. Or the 2014-15 Boston Bruins, who were among the leaders in going to shootouts (14), lost 10 of them and missed the postseason by two points.
You can make the argument that the more shootouts you play in, the more your playoff chances essentially come down to a coin flip. By reducing the amount of shootouts, 3-on-3 overtime is at least poised to leave the playoff races up to hockey skills and not fancy stickwork. So far, the rule change has succeeded in accomplishing its main purpose.
Do the players and coaches like 3-on-3 overtime?
Ah, that's the tricky part. It depends on who you ask.
Two prominent NHL defensemen have already dismissed the rule change as a gimmick. Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien called it "a terrible part of hockey." Buffalo Sabres goalie Chad Johnson mocked it. Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (an offensively gifted player you'd expect to love the change) also hates it.
"It's not really hockey. It's whoever holds on to the puck longest and whoever cheats the most. Small stuff like that. Kinda boring," the Ottawa Senators defenceman went on. "I don't really know what extra purpose it serves other than getting players extra tired. I don't see why we would keep it."
But they seem to be in the minority, at least among those who've sounded off publicly. Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland calls 3-on-3 overtime "fabulous." Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill says "it has served its purpose." Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant calls it "fun."
As these things often go, whether you support the change probably depends on whether your team loses or wins in overtime.
But if you're a fan of the NHL, it's nearly impossible to deny that the switch to 3-on-3 has injected new life and importance into an area of the game that sorely needed it.