Logo for the DFR Audible post categoryThree Is Not The NHL’s Magic Number

I guess it was a Christmas miracle: somehow, in the midst of this painfully busy holiday season, I found the time to watch two hockey games. I was able to check out the two games on the Sharks schedule sandwiched around the holiday: first at home against Edmonton, then last night’s road game against the Ducks in Anaheim.

Both games went into overtime, and both ended with San Jose victories during the extra period. Those two extra periods were the first time I really took a good, long look at the still new-ish 3-on-3 (rather than 4-on-4) overtime setup.

The theory, in removing yet another player from the ice, seemed pretty simple: take away one guy and the ice opens up for a more freewheeling, exciting five minutes (or less). Therefore, take away another player and obviously you’ll get even more freewheeling, more exciting hockey. Right?

Well…maybe not.

Here in the Bay Area, last year’s Sharks season got good and swallowed up by the Warriors’ crazy run of excellence; that, combined with the fact that San Jose had a fairly mediocre campaign before breaking out in the playoffs for their Stanley Cup Final run, meant that I never really bothered to watch very many games until the postseason. So 3-on-3 is still pretty new to me.

New and exciting? Not from what I saw.

In both overtime periods, I saw the Sharks, Oilers, and Ducks do a lot of skating with the puck. That makes sense: there’s so much open ice with only six skaters on the sheet that there’s plenty of room to maneuver out there. What doesn’t make sense is that that was most of what was going on: a lot of skating, not a ton of shots on goal, or even scoring chances.

Think I’m kidding? Guess how many shots on goal the Oilers and Ducks got combined in the two OT losses to the Sharks. I’ll wait…Buzz…Sorry, wrong answer. The correct answer is zero. That’s ZERO. As in (0). The Sharks themselves took only two shots apiece in each of those overtimes, winning each game on only their second on-target effort of the extra period. Nice work if you can get it.

Perhaps this is just something to do with San Jose and the nature of their team. Peter DeBoer does, in fact, stress defense. Maybe it’s just a quirk of the Sharks. To test that idea, I went back to the other overtime games from last Friday, the same night the Sharks beat the Oilers, and checked the shot charts for those overtime periods:

Los Angeles (L) at Dallas (W): 3 (2 by Dallas)
Boston (L) at Carolina (W): 2 (both by the Hurricanes)
Detroit (W-SO) at Florida (L): 8 (seven by the losing Panthers, only one by the Wings)

With the exception of the Panthers, who peppered Detroit goalie Jared Coreau throughout the extra period, every other team in the league’s last five OT games got off two SOG or less during the extra frame.

Not exactly the high-flying 1980s Edmonton Oilers out there.

Just for fun, I went back two years–to December 27, 2014–and looked at the shot charts for games from that night that went to overtime:

Islanders at Sabres: 6 shots total in overtime
Detroit at Ottawa: 4 SOG
Winnipeg at Minnesota: 2 SOG
Anaheim at Arizona: 3 SOG

It’s a small sample size, but it looks like two years ago, when OT meant four-on-four action, goalies were seeing a lot more rubber thrown their way.

What’s going on here?

It appears the law of unintended consequences is hard at work in the NHL. With all that open ice out there, skaters seem to be looking to make the perfect pass instead of making more plays to get the puck to the net. In other words, they’re choosing quality over quantity.

It may be worth noting that four of the five games examined from this season were settled in the overtime period, without the shootout, while of those four games from 2014 half ended with a skills competition. So I guess that’s good.

But…

The plain fact is, with skaters holding the puck for long periods and dragging it around looking to set up the best, nicest, sweetest play to end the game–and often doing so by pulling back out of the offensive zone to regroup and reset the play–the overtime period is becoming quite a bit less action-packed. Indeed, it’s actually getting boring.

From this vantage point, it looks like 4-on-4 was actually a better way of going about the overtime. That one extra skater allows the defense to put more pressure on the puck-handler. That means more movement, and a little more desperation to get the puck to the net regardless of whether the situation is perfect or not. It can also mean more mistakes, and those mistakes are the plays that can lead to breakaways going the other direction. And, put it all together, all that means more scoring chances, more action, more exciting hockey.

Then again, I’m already on record as saying that I don’t particularly mind ties, so I’d probably be cool with just getting rid of overtime (and the shootout) entirely. But barring that, here’s to hoping the NHL corrects its correction and goes back to 4-on-4 for the extra period. I want to see shots on goal; if I wanted to see a guy just skating around the ice, I’d have gone to the latest Disney-on-Ice extravaganza.

And nobody wants that.

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