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3 (ON 3) IS THE MAGIC NUMBER

Dec. 07, 2015
Dec. 07, 2015

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Dec. 7, 2015

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3 (ON 3) IS THE MAGIC NUMBER

By ALEX PREWITT

Other leagues, take note: The NHL's mesmerizingly manic new overtime format—three skaters a side, miles of open ice, scoring chances galore—is everything a rules innovation should be. (Plus, it makes shootouts scarcer.) What's not to love about anarchy on ice? Pipe down, goalies....

This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2015 issue

MORE THAN a month since his first meaningful encounter with the NHL's new 3-on-3 overtime format, Toronto winger Daniel Winnik still describes the experience with borderline blasphemy. "Christ, I was nervous," he says, recalling the mid-October night in Ottawa when the nine-year veteran took the opening shift after regulation. As a member of the NHL competition committee representing the players in rule-change discussions last year, Winnik had helped bring 3-on-3 sudden death to life. Like everyone else, he expected speed, open ice and more overtime goals, the intended consequences of the league's most significant modification since implementing the shootout a decade ago. But beyond two exhibitions, several preseason practices and shinny games after summer workouts, Winnik had never played 3-on-3 for keeps. It took less than a shift before his thoughts turned to, Oh, s---.

After losing the opening face-off, the Senators coaxed a turnover and ushered the puck back to their All-Star defenseman, Erik Karlsson, who started the breakout from behind his net. As he moved up the ice, the reigning Norris Trophy winner nodded to teammate Mark Stone to his left, giving the green light for a set play, a give-and-go spanning all three zones. He fired the puck toward the red line and with a sudden burst of speed zipped through the neutral zone, right at Winnik at center ice. With a Leafs defender already behind the play and another covering Stone, only Winnik stood between Karlsson and Toronto's goal. Caught by surprise, Winnik recalls whirling around in panic, suddenly chasing what began as an ordinary, innocuous play.

Such is the hazard of dining at the NHL's breakaway buffet, where 3-on-2s become 2-on-1s, and 2-on-1s open into 1-on-nones. Had Karlsson's pass been returned instead of skittering harmlessly away, the Maple Leafs might have lost in less than 30 seconds. (As it was, they ended the five-minute overtime still tied and lost in a shootout.) Even so, that wouldn't have beaten Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews's winner against Tampa Bay on Oct. 24, when he danced between two backcheckers, fended off their sticks and punched through his rebound 17 seconds in, the fastest 3-on-3 goal to date. That loss capped off three straight overtime games for the Lightning, who had beaten Winnipeg on a 3-on-1 with just 36 seconds off the clock the night before. In Nashville on Oct. 20, before eventually going to a shootout, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was caught out for a grueling two minutes, the longest 3-on-3 shift on record. "It's a free-for-all," Minnesota forward Jason Zucker says. "It's wide-open hockey."

But with the open ice that 3-on-3 creates, something as small as a bad bounce or a slow change can lead to chaos. "It could be a track meet," says Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen, "or it could be a chess match." As such, there are strategies.

The first commandment of 3-on-3 overtime: Possess the puck at all costs, even if the methods run counter to intuition. "Everything's completely contradictory," Calgary GM Brad Treliving says. Instead of dumping the puck for a line change, thereby creating a 50-50 battle in the offensive zone, players in 3-on-3 hold on to it, even if it means giving up favorable zone position. "There are things players do instinctually that you don't necessarily want them doing in 3-on-3," Treliving says.

Goalies too. Scoring chances cascade from end to end with so much unoccupied ice—but keeping the puck out of the net is only the beginning. "In regulation," Wild netminder Devan Dubnyk says, "you're worrying about stopping a shot and only stopping a shot, not what you're going to do with it after you catch it." A quick toss from the glove can spark a breakout in the opposite direction; taking a timely feed back from a defenseman can ensure a line change. Freezing the puck and setting up a dangerous defensive-zone draw isn't always the most prudent play. "We have guys passing to our goaltender from the red line, for God's sake," New Jersey GM Ray Shero says. "The goalie better be awake."

On the same night Toews beat Tampa Bay, Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek abandoned his crease to play a loose puck inside the left face-off circle in Vancouver. As the Canucks changed, Mrazek whipped a 94-foot pass off the boards to teammate Gustav Nyquist at the far blue line. Nyquist scored, giving Mrazek the first (and so far only) primary assist by a goaltender in overtime.

As Treliving says, no strategy "is too off-the-wall," at least in theory. Some moments of coaching courage, like Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper deploying three forwards at once or Washington's Barry Trotz ordering Alex Ovechkin to cherry-pick breakaways while his teammates defend 2-on-3, have thus far been limited to exhibition trial runs and meeting-room hypotheticals, too dicey for games that actually count. But they may emerge yet.

Other gambits have been less exceptional. Earlier this season the Flames took those players not marked for overtime duty and had them stand behind the bench, next to the coaches. "They weren't going to get in, so we cleared room [on the bench]," Treliving says. "Every foot counts." Three teams have begun overtime with two defensemen and one forward, reversing the typical starting lineup: Washington, New Jersey and Calgary, whose five overtime wins lead the league, with Chicago and Detroit. Taking such a defensive posture could guard against a quick first strike or, in the case of the Flames, it could simply be a matter of using the team's best players. In a mid-November game in Edmonton, the Stanley Cup--champion Blackhawks sprang a mid-change magic trick on their hosts. As defenseman Brent Seabrook carried the puck deep in his defensive zone, teammate Artem Anisimov bolted to the bench, signaling for a change. With all three Oilers preoccupied with Seabrook, Marian Hossa timed his entrance perfectly, hopping off the bench at the offensive blue line and taking a stretch pass in stride for the game-winning breakaway. "It's the ol', Where the heck did that guy come from?" Stars coach Lindy Ruff says.

The new 3-on-3 format change had similarly inconspicuous roots as an agenda item presented to the league's general managers several years ago, though at first it generated little buzz. But it thrived during a testing phase last year in the minor leagues, drew inspiration from an unusual decision in Scandinavia and will soon be used in a minitournament at the 2016 All-Star Game. By week's end 55 of 81 overtimes (67.9%) had been resolved before the shootout, up from 40.1% (in 2012--13), 42.0% ('13--'14) and 44.4% ('14--'15). Of those 55 winners 11 were scored within the first minute of overtime, and more than half came on the rush. You can call it more gimmicky than its 4-on-4 predecessor, you can debate its merits as a method for settling outcomes, but concede this much: The NHL's concoction has sizzled while leaving skaters gassed, seatbacks empty and broadcasters breathless. It has, for now, resolved a shortcoming in the game while pumping it with entertainment value. (Other leagues could learn something: see sidebars). As Bill Simmons tweeted in October, "3 on 3 OT hockey is the greatest sports invention since the 3 point line."

Or, in the words of Flyers forward Jakub Voracek, "It's f---ing shotgun hockey. Just get out there and go."

THE MAN who became shotgun hockey's most vocal advocate was sitting inside the media room at Boston's TD Garden last month, telling its story between bites of his pregame meal. "Here's what happened," Red Wings GM Ken Holland says. "The shootout is a way to bring the game to a conclusion, and it's an exciting way [to do it]. But we wanted to have more games decided in overtime. We wanted change." Holland first took up this cause several years ago at the general managers' meetings, a somewhat ironic position given that he had been one of two executives to vote against instituting the shootout in July 2005. "I guess we were a little traditionalist," Holland says, and yet here he was, sounding the horn for change.

Overtime, which went to 4-on-4 in 1999--2000, had undergone reform before but in small doses. Five years ago the league removed shootout victories from the playoff tiebreaking procedure, aiming to incentivize winning in OT. When the rate of tied games going to the shootout still hovered around 60%, the GMs voted to switch ends for overtime, creating a "long change" from a team's defensive zone to its bench. "Everybody agreed, if the long change didn't have a dramatic effect, we'd have serious conversations at the March 2015 meeting," Holland says. "There was a mood to try to do something other than just tweak it."

Before the 2014--15 season the American Hockey League's competition committee, made up largely of NHL assistant GMs, adopted a hybrid format for overtime—three minutes of 4-on-4 and then, at the first stoppage thereafter, 3-on-3. "It was really on an experimental basis to see what it did to decision rates," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. Around Christmas the Swedish Elite League also made the "very quick" and "very unusual" decision, as head of hockey operations Johan Hemlin wrote in an email, to change to 3-on-3 during the middle of the season. In both instances, the frequency of shootouts occurring plummeted almost 40%.

The NHL's general managers favored the hybrid model, but when the competition committee met in early June, the four players present—Winnik, New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, Devils forward Mike Cammalleri and St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk—voiced concern over adding time to the clock. "If you do seven minutes, you're basically just hoping it gets to the 3-on-3 portion, so why not just do the full [five minutes at] 3-on-3?" Winnik says. Three weeks later, two days before the NHL draft, the board of governors stamped their approval.

Since the implementation of 3-on-3, however, a few protests have emerged. Some players wondered if overtime wins, like shootout victories, should also be removed from the first tiebreaker equation. Dubnyk has advocated for separate statistics for overtime, something the competition committee discussed but did not resolve. (Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau, Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and Voracek, each with eight OT points, would likely beg to differ.) "You hear guys saying it's not hockey, which is fine to say," Dubnyk says, "but if there is that separate category of 3-on-3 time, then I don't think people will worry as much about what it is, if it's hockey or if it's not hockey." Karlsson called it "kind of boring," likening it to a bag skate, while Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien ripped it, simply calling it "stupid."

"I hated the idea when they said it," says Niskanen, one of the two defensemen Washington starts in overtime. "It sounded weird to me. It felt cheesier than a shootout. But I've come around." Karlsson also recently admitted he may have judged too quickly.

At the league level, Daly says, the feedback has been positive. The decision to incorporate 3-on-3 into next month's All-Star Game—the format is a four-team tournament of 20-minute games of 3-on-3—required players' association approval and received little pushback. But whether the excitement and effectiveness of 3-on-3 stays steady, Daly and others predict, will largely depend upon the men charged with organizing the madness.

"It reminds me of 4-on-4 when we first put it in, in the early stages," says Peter DeBoer, in his first season helming the Sharks. "There's a lot of open ice, a lot of chances created, and I think we coached that out of it. Now it's going to be tough to eliminate all the chances of 3-on-3, but I don't see this having the same success rate as it goes along. It's our job to find out how to slow it down a little bit."

Will coaches whittle away the speed and muzzle shotgun hockey? Will more teams follow Washington and New Jersey in starting two defensemen as security blankets? Boston defenseman Torey Krug recalls one opponent deploying a zone defense to guard against getting burned in the usual man-to-man matchup. Niskanen recently suggested keeping two skaters above the hashmarks in the offensive zone to prevent breakaways from erupting in the opposite direction. Then, emptied of ideas, he wondered if the NHL had installed something unintentionally coach-proof. "I think you can coach anything to a degree," Holland says, "but sooner or later you're going to have a scoring chance. We've got the best in the world at what they do. And if you give them some time and space, they're going to do things that can bring you out of your seat."

PHOTOPhotograph by Tim Clayton for Sports IllustratedTHRICE ON ICE Taking away two skaters a side in overtime has opened up room for the most skilled players to operate. The result: 23.5% more games being settled before a shootout.