For the first time since the 2005-06 season, when the shootout was introduced as a solution to eliminate ties, the National Hockey League has overhauled its overtime format.
In lieu of five minutes of sudden-death 4-on-4 preceding the shootout, five minutes of sudden-death 3-on-3 will serve as the game-deciding format prior to the skills competition, an arrangement that was tested and widely lauded in the preseason.
It’s a sweeping rule change that has players, coaches and fans alike buzzing.
“I love it. It’s nerve-racking, but I love it,” Nathan Gerbe said in late September. “You get to see a big skill level, and for the fans, it’s got to be exciting to watch. I know it’s exciting for us and nerve-racking at the same time.”
“A lot of open ice and a lot of fun for the crowd and shooters,” Eddie Lack said after a preseason game. And the goalies? “It’s fun when you’re making the saves.”
“It’s fun,” Victor Rask said, simply. “It’s wide-open, and it’s fun hockey.”
Ask a player about how he feels about training camp, or about walking us through that goal he scored, or about how this is working on the ice but that isn't – and it's nothing he hasn't heard before. But ask about 3-on-3, and you can see the gears turning, the hockey mind rifling through the unknown.
3-on-3 is uncharted waters, and they are the cartographers.
“It’s interesting. If you talk to the guys, they’ve never played it, right?” head coach Bill Peters mused.
Shootouts, though derived from the hockey event of a penalty shot, rob the sport of its core tenet of teamwork, detractors will argue. Though 3-on-3 play is incredibly rare in regulation hockey, it's hard to denounce its merit. It's still hockey, but with two fewer skaters aside and a swath of open ice with which to work. Teamwork will be paramount, whether it's racing up the ice on an odd-man rush or coordinating a line change without yielding possession.
So, what’s the strategy? Or is there even a strategy?
“There’s somewhat of a strategy, but there’s going to be chances regardless,” Eric Staal said. “It’s going to feel wide open.”
“Do you go with guys that are more defensive-minded or offensive-minded? I think you have to have offensive-minded guys out there that, when they get the chance, they’re going to end it,” Peters said. “It’s a little bit of a feeling out process, but all-in-all, we learn every time we play it.”
In six exhibition matches, the Canes played 3-on-3 overtime four times, three by league mandate (the NHL designated 45 preseason games to feature 3-on-3, an expanded opportunity for players, coaches, management and officials to experiment with the new overtime format) and once by circumstance.
A goal was scored in three of the four 3-on-3 periods – the Canes scored twice, and their opponents tallied once – which is essentially in-line with the league-wide scoring clip.
In the Sept. 30 exhibition match against the Washington Capitals, the visitors attempted to execute what looked to be a set play off the opening draw. After the Caps won the faceoff, Karl Alzner raced off the ice as Alex Ovechkin hopped over the boards and stretched to accept a pass in stride, but the puck bounced off his stick. Had it been successful, he could have very well ended the overtime period in the first 10 seconds.
“You have to be aware, and I’m sure you’ll see that again from some other teams,” Staal said.
“I thought the play Washington ran on the opening faceoff was a learning environment,” Peters said. “We’ve talked about it and knew it was going to happen. We’re going to obviously have to implement that ourselves.”
A few days later in practice, the Canes ran the same exact play in a 3-on-3 simulation.
“Guys are getting their head wrapped around it,” Peters said. “We’ll keep harping on it, keep showing video and keep practicing. We’ll become good at it.”
Strategy-wise, there does seem to be one infallible maxim.
“Don’t give up the puck,” Gerbe said with a smile.
“When you have the puck, you want to keep it. If we can get that puck and hang onto it, hopefully we have the ability to make a line change, get fresh guys and catch the other team tired,” Staal said. “I think the biggest strategy is when you have it, keep it. When you have that good grade-A chance, try to finish it because you’re most likely going to be giving up a couple chances the other way. When you get your chance, you want to score.”
“You’ve got to be careful with the puck, try to control the puck as much as you can and not take bad shots,” Rask said. “There’s a lot of room. You can skate with the puck and hold on to it for a long time. You just have to find a good shot and score from there.”
With so much room to maneuver, maintaining possession in 3-on-3 play can be accomplished in a number of ways: a regroup in the neutral zone, for instance, or perhaps more creatively, a pass back to the goaltender. Rask utilized the latter against Washington in preseason play, sending the puck back down the ice to Lack in order to roll a line change.
“I think that will be used for both teams. Even if you’re in the offensive zone, you’ll see guys carrying it out of the zone and not keeping it down there because you want to keep that possession of the puck,” Staal said. “If you’re out there for even 20 or 30 seconds and you can get a line change, that’s going to add up to tired guys on the other team.”
“If you’re under siege, getting pushed up away from the blue line and don’t have anything, you might as well use the goaltender,” Peters said. “You can bring it out of the offensive zone and regroup, too. If you’re under pressure and don’t have a play, instead of giving it up or chipping it down the wall to nobody, you might as well bring it back out.”
If the preseason experiments were any indication, 3-on-3 overtime is going to provide unparalleled, end-to-end, back-and-forth excitement.
“Organized chaos,” Peters said with a smile.
And don’t blink because you might miss the game-winning goal.
“Once one team gets an odd-man rush, I don’t know how you defend it back going the other way. It just seems like once there’s a grade-A, there’s going to be another one going back the other way,” Peters said. “From the people I’ve talked to in the American League who have done this much more than we have, they feel your counter-attack in transition is important and you need a save. If you get a save, you’re going the other way, but at some point, your guys have to finish.”
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