Don’t blink. Not even once, if you don’t want to miss a goal.
The National Hockey League has adopted 3-on-3 overtime this season and it is as thrilling as advertised. It’s a back-and-forth, offensively-explosive, mistake-filled, chance-filled, run-and-gun creativity fest. It’s entertaining and it’s ever-evolving.
When the NHL Board of Governors approved the 3-on-3 overtime format in June, it was designed to create more space on the ice, resulting in more goals and more games ending in overtime as opposed to the shootout.
To test this format, 3-on-3 overtime was launched in the American Hockey League in 2014-15. It was a test run that proved successful in terms of the end game. 75 percent of the AHL games that went beyond regulation last season were decided in OT. That number jumped from 35.3 percent the season before.
The AHL tested 3-on-3 by instituting a seven-minute sudden-death overtime period, preceded by a dry scrape. Teams changed ends and would skate 4-on-4 until the first whistle following three minutes of play. The two teams played 3-on-3 for the duration of the period, followed by a shootout if the game was undecided.
268 games went beyond regulation in the AHL last season. 116 were decided 4-on-4, 85 were decided 3-on-3 and only 67 went to a shootout. When the game switched to 3-on-3, a goal was scored every 3:41 the fastest compared to 4-on-4 (8:33) and 4-on-3 (4:04).
Need a scouting report on 3-on-3 overtime? Look no further than the Oilers affiliate from a year ago: the Oklahoma City Barons.
No AHL team had more success in 3-on-3 overtime last season than the Oilers affiliate.
In games decided by 3-on-3 overtime, OKC was 7-1. Only Hartford tied for the most wins in the league, but they had two losses to go along with it. Iowa had the best winning percentage in the league, but played just one game decided 3-on-3.
“I don’t think there was any real formula,” said Oilers defenceman Brandon Davidson, who was with the Barons last season. “We were able to keep our chances against low and were able to bury ours. I think that’s a big thing you’ll see at the beginning of this year as well, is the puck goes back and forth either way because whoever can bury their chance first, it’s only a matter of seconds before it’s down to the other end and there’s a chance on both sides. I think it’s great and also we were able to move pucks well and complete scoring chances.”
When the Barons players and coaching staff first heard the AHL would play the guinea pig role with 3-on-3, there was some apprehensive excitement.
“My initial reaction was it was something we were unsure about,” said Davidson. “I was excited to try it but, at the same time, also weary about it too because it’s kind of hard to decide a game with three players on the ice. It brings a lot of excitement I think, but it was definitely a transitional period but now I really enjoy it. I think it’s great for the game. It’s a great chance for fans to see the scoring chances and to allow that to happen. I’m a big believer in it and I think it’s great.”
Barons Interim Coach turned Bakersfield Condors bench boss Gerry Fleming agrees with Davidson. 3-on-3 overtime brought a new level of excitement.
“It’s back and forth,” said Fleming. “There’s a lot of good scoring opportunities, there’s good saves, there’s nice goals. It’s exciting to watch, so I was happy for it.”
The Oilers AHL affiliate had to adjust quickly to the new format. They played 22 games beyond regulation, winning 14 of them. Their .818 win percentage was the second best in the AHL. Their seven wins in 3-on-3 time helped them get into the playoffs.
The Barons, like the rest of the AHL, went through a learning process when it came to 3-on-3. Would they deploy a three-forward look? One defenceman? Two defencemen? Would they run set plays or let the creative players be creative? The answer: they tried it all.
“We used to do a lot of different things,” said Fleming. “We would run set plays, we tried to create odd-man rushes and a lot of it was based on changes. We tried to catch guys on the ice for a while and get them fatigued, incorporate our goaltenders and not being afraid to take the puck outside the blueline, just so we could get fresh troops on and try to stretch some guys. There were a lot of things we tried and fortunately we had some success with it.”
When it comes to deciding who to deploy in overtime, the answer usually came down to who was hot or who could provide the most playmaking abilities.
“We went three forwards at times, we went two defencemen and one forward at other times or two forwards and one D,” Fleming explained. “A lot of variables play into who you’re going to have on the ice and in what situation. I know there’s not much time and you usually go with the guys that are your better skaters, your more skilled players and guys that aren’t afraid to try things out there, make skilled plays and manage the puck.”
There’s still a lot to be game planned when it comes to 3-on-3 overtime. There are a lot of questions and, likely, just as many answers. With so much open ice, overtime becomes a blank canvas for coaches.
“It’s an ever-evolving strategical aspect of the game,” said Fleming. “I think a lot of guys are learning as they go, incorporating new stuff, trying new things, they’re seeing how it works. It’s experimental, but there’s a common denominator that I think. Obviously, puck possession changes are very important, incorporating your goaltender by using a triangular defence, almost like a 5-on-3, keeping things to the outside. All those things you have to take into consideration when you’re playing 3-on-3. As we go through here, coaches will evolve and introduce new strategies. It’s trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t work.”
Fleming and the staff down in Oklahoma City did plenty of tweaking, given how many opportunities they had to test drive the new format. They learned that with that much open ice, it sometimes comes down to who is the first team to trip up.
“You’re trying to capitalize on other teams’ mistakes and get odd-man rushes,” said Fleming. “Saves are important, obviously at every juncture of the game. Creating odd-man rushes and breakaways is important. Sometimes you’re the third guy coming in late and you’ve been conditioned to backcheck hard and you might give up that scoring chance. If you’re on the wrong side of the puck, there’s no way you’re going to catch him. Or you can set up a breakaway and fire the puck up to the late trailer guy. You can stretch a guy. There’s so many things you can do. It’s an ever-evolving process and I think going through the course of this year and through the season you’re going to see teams incorporate different strategies and tactics.”
As the NHL opens its first season utilizing the new overtime format, you see a lot of skilled players thrown into the fray trying to make plays with the puck. More structure will inevitably creep into the game plans for teams.
“That’s the thing and we’re seeing it this year, more on a broader and bigger stage. I think it’s great,” said Davidson. “At the same time, you can see the puck goes from one end to the other so fast that when you do get your chance you have to bear down. It’s also when the puck is in your end you have to defend well as well. It can go either way really quickly.”
Lauri Korpikoski, who scored the Oilers first 3-on-3 overtime goal in the regular season this year in Vancouver, agrees that structure is coming.
“You’re starting to see more set plays,” said Korpikoski. “In the Vancouver game, they lined up three and then changed one guy and one guy jumps off the bench for a breakaway. You can see a little more set plays and stuff like that. As this year goes on you’ll see more tactics as the coaches get more familiar with it. It’s entertaining. Sometimes, when it gets slowed down and the puck is cycled around in the zone, it might look a little like summer hockey in a way. You just want to hold onto the puck and make plays. I don’t mind it. I’d rather have it 3-on-3 than the shootout.”
Even one of the best teams in the league at it last year is looking for new things to implement.
“We watch a lot of NHL hockey and when the opportunity presents itself to watch, we’re definitely watching,” said Fleming. “Even the next day, we’ll throw it up in our war room and see if somebody is trying something new or if there’s something we can learn or tweak. Something that’s going to give us a little bit of an advantage in 3-on-3.”
The Oilers went out this off-season and hired a new coaching staff. They brought in the experienced Todd McLellan, who spent the last seven seasons in San Jose. But when McLellan began to look ahead to the regular season in training camp, he took a step backwards and sought out the advice of his AHL staff in Bakersfield.
“We have spent time as a staff… with Gerry Fleming and his staff from the American League, who have played in this environment before, who have had a ton of success, they were one of the top teams 3-on-3 in the American League last year,” McLellan said in camp. “We have watched their games and their situations, both positively when they score and win and negatively when they give something up.”
Having film study with Fleming and his staff was helpful to the Oilers. It painted a clearer picture for McLellan.
“There are patterns for goals for and against,” said McLellan. “Shift length and possession are extremely important. Faceoff situations… Your normal skate out and lineup on the hashmarks because that’s where they’re aligned might change a lot. You only have three guys, where are you going to line up? The use of a goaltender, not just making the save but using the goaltender. There’s a lot of factors that go into this 3-on-3, and we aren’t prepared right now… we’ll begin to look at it at the NHL level and see if we can apply some of the American League principles to what we’re seeing.”
Fleming enjoyed the back and forth the two staffs had in training camp and hopes they provided some keys to success.
“The conversations were very candid,” said Fleming. “They were very open and it was great with Todd and his staff. They were very receptive to some of the things that we suggested and they built upon that foundation. They took a couple things and incorporated some of the ideas we used or we’d like to use if we get in that situation.”
Having studied one of the more successful 3-on-3 teams in hockey last season, the Oilers provided themselves with a rough blueprint for success. A lot of it is still trial and error.
Either fortunately or unfortunately for them, depending how you look at it, the Oilers haven’t had much of an opportunity to test out their tactics.
As we enter the month of November, Edmonton has only seen one game go beyond regulation in the regular season. Luckily for them, the results were positive.
On October 18, the Oilers were playing the Canucks in Vancouver. After the two teams traded goals in the first period, the game stayed locked at 1-1 after 60 minutes. The puck went back and forth until Korpikoski scored the game-winning goal just 1:46 into 3-on-3 overtime to lift the Oilers to their second win of the season.
The Oilers scored the goal on a 2-on-1 rush, with Andrej Sekera setting up Korpikoski. It was a prime example of how fast and open 3-on-3 overtime is.
“There’s a lot of chances,” said Korpikoski. “It’s not so much fun when you don’t have the puck. You’re losing coverage or you’re getting chances against, but it’s fun when you have it. The key is to hold onto the puck for as long as you can, as much as you can and make sure you keep the puck when you change. Those are the little things that come into play right now.”
As 3-on-3 overtime continues to work out its place in the NHL, you can’t help but look at rosters and pick and choose which teams should be the most successful at it. The Canucks have the Sedin twins, and their cycle game and playmaking skills makes them a formidable opponent when the benches are shortened. But when you look at the team that beat them in OT this year, the Oilers, you can’t help but think of the possibilities with all that open ice. Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz… the list of skillful players who can get the job done when given space is long.
Fleming sees them as the perfect fit to exploit one of the NHL’s newest rule changes.
“They’re very skilled, they’re fast, they like to possess the puck and have players that make plays.”
By Chris Wescott/edmontonoilers.com