NHL's new 3-on-3 OT is a thrill, but coaches will find a way to spoil it
I have to admit it. Maybe, just maybe, I was wrong.
As a fan of the shootout—hey, I grew up on Showdown In The NHL—I was dead set against the adoption of three-on-three overtime for the 2015-16 NHL season. But I have to admit the early returns on the new game-decider have been nothing short of thrilling.
What the new OT format is delivering that the shootout can’t is pace. It’s a full-tilt boogie from the moment the puck drops, with wide open spaces that encourage dazzling creativity and the looming threat of a swift and merciless counterattack to amp up the intensity.
“It’s incredibly exciting from what I’ve observed so far,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “The action is back-and-forth. Every chance one way leads to a chance going back the other way ... if it’s not already in the net.”
So far, the puck has been in the net early and often. Through Wednesday’s action, 11 preseason games have required overtime. Seven were decided in 2:05 or less. Only one of the 11 required a shootout.
I have to hand it to Ken Holland. So far, it’s been everything he promised.
The Red Wings general manager championed this option for years in an effort to reduce the number of shootouts and lessen their apparently deplorable impact on the standings. He hated the gimmick, deriding it as a skills competition and a lousy way to end a game.
Of course, three-on-three is no more “real hockey” than the shootout, but as a gimmick it more closely approximates game conditions. There’s teamwork. There’s passing. There’s even defense. It’s basically the best and fastest pond hockey you’ve ever seen, where speed rules and scoring chances rely on skill rather than getting pucks to the net and banging away at rebounds.
Will it always be played at this hair-on-fire pace? Probably not. Given time, it’s a safe bet that NHL coaching staffs will find a way to suck the fun out of it by clamping down defensively, just as they have with every other innovation geared toward ramping up scoring.
“When you think there’s a lot of offense, coaches will find some ways to slow this down,” Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau told the OC Register. “It’s almost [like] holding it to the last shot in basketball. Let’s not give them an opportunity. Let’s get the breakaway in the last eight seconds.
“But I think once enough people see how it works, I think they’ll find ways to, not prevent it, but how to play it offensively.”
Which probably means it will evolve into a more controlled attack-and-response than the glorious chaos we've been treated to during the preseason thus far. That process might not be long in arriving. The St. Louis Blues already have released a video that captures their planning for three-on-three play. In it, coach Ken Hitchcock leads a discussion of strategy that touches on everything from player usage (the Blues are leaning toward sending out three forwards and no defensemen) to the practicality of line changes on the fly to the goalie’s increased involvement in the attack.
But even as Hitchcock says his team “may as well go for it,” the video leaves you with a sense that he and his staff will figure out a way to jam a stick in the spokes of three-on-three before long.
We can deal with that later. Until then, let’s enjoy it as chaos reigns.
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