NHL

NHL skaters embracing chaos of 3-on-3 overtime — just don't ask the goalies

When all-stars play their annual 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night, it'll look like the overtimes of years past, with less regard for defence, of course. But in the regular season, 3-on-3 overtime has become a much more methodical game full of strategy predicated on holding on to the puck and only taking the highest of quality shots.

Strategy for extra frame continues to evolve in format's 5th year of use

Calgary's Mikael Backlund, left, celebrates his overtime goal with teammate Mark Giordano during a game in 2017. After five years with the 3-on-3 format, Giordano says strategies are continuing to evolve. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Victor Hedman fondly recalls the NHL's first 3-on-3 overtime because it was madness.

"It was probably a minute and a half of just breakaways," the Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman said. "Jason Garrison scored the goal — beat the D-man [and scored] five-hole."

Trading breakaways and playing at a frenetic pace was what 3-on-3 was about when it debuted in 2015. The idea was to open up the ice for skilled players so fewer games needed to be decided by a shootout.

When all-stars play their annual 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night, it'll look like the overtimes of years past, with less regard for defence, of course. But in the regular season, 3-on-3 overtime has become a much more methodical game full of strategy predicated on holding on to the puck and only taking the highest of quality shots.

"You have tactics now," Hedman said. "In the beginning, you kind of didn't know what to do. It's all about maybe not coming down on an angle and taking a bad shot and it goes out and goes the other way. It's all about puck possession. ... I think as guys have played it more, they've learned more and now I think more and more games go to a shootout."

At the all-star break, 8.2 per cent of games this season have been decided by a shootout, up slightly from 7.9 per cent in the first four seasons with 3-on-3 overtime. The evolution of 3-on-3 with so many teams opting to circle back over and over has prompted talk about adding a shot clock, forcing teams to stay in the offensive zone and potentially adding time beyond the current five-minute period.

Dangerous line changes

The initial theory was so much open ice made 3-on-3 coach-proof. Coaches and players have figured out different tactics, and the results are noticeable.

"The biggest change is probably the ability to get your players on and not allow them to change while maintaining puck possession," Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. "The goaltenders are used a lot more in terms of making line changes by throwing it back to the goalie. Regrouping — I think at first it was just get in the zone and try to find a give and go somewhere that works. Now, guys are going back, they're going back, they're going back, tire out the other team, try to score off the rush."

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There's more science to 3-on-3 now, and, therefore, less fun. It's still an entertaining product, only with more players thinking about fatiguing opponents than putting the puck on net as much as possible.

"The most important thing is line changes," Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said. "I think we've all learned that you can't change at the wrong time [because] it'll cost you an odd-man rush. The puck possession, I think teams are figuring it out."

A basketball-style shot clock could force more action. But the biggest conversation right now is about extending 3-on-3 OT to seven or perhaps even 10 minutes in an effort to further reduce shootouts.

As one of the players who would be taking on those extra minutes, Hedman is in favour of a longer overtime. But not all players want to see it doubled.

"Maybe a few more minutes tacked on would be cool," Giordano said. "We love playing it, but you'd have to look at how it would affect the guys who are playing and the more wear on their bodies with those minutes because 3-on-3 minutes are a lot different than 5-on-5 minutes. It's a lot more taxing, for sure."

Goalies not fans of OT format

Goaltenders would also get taxed with a heavier workload. They don't see as many shots in 3-on-3 as the rest of the game, but almost every one is difficult to stop.

"Every single shot is dangerous," Flames goalie David Rittich said. "It's usually hard. You kind of know you're going to face some breakaways, 2-on-1s, 3-on-1s, so you've got to be ready for everything. ... I'm not a big fan of 3-on-3 hockey, actually."

Goalies are in the minority there. Arenas still feel a special buzz for 3-on-3 overtime, and skaters get to show off the skill that's not ordinarily possible at 5-on-5.

"I think it's cool for the fans, too," Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. "I just really like playing in that."

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