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3-on-3 Overtime: My Early Observations

by Willy Daunic / Nashville Predators

Ever since the NHL approved 3-on-3 play to decide overtime this year, the wheels have been turning for coaches. When I spoke to Nashville Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette during the NHL Awards event in Las Vegas last summer (just days after the rule had passed), he said he would have to do some serious thinking about strategy. He said he would consult coaches in the American Hockey League who experienced it last season, and he would probably try a few different things before settling in on an approach.

After watching the preseason unfold, I (like everyone else) am extremely curious to see how teams go after the vital points at stake in these overtimes. Play safe and counterattack? Throw caution to the wind and just go? Three forwards? Three defensemen? Fastest players? Smartest players? Here are some theories and observations I've compiled from players, announcers, coaches and other hockey people:

Math:

My broadcast partner Stu Grimson and Columbus Blue Jackets Radio Analyst Jody Shelley had an interesting exchange before Tuesday's preseason game. Grimson pointed out the essential double-edged sword that defines (to me) 3-on-3: If you create a 2-on-1 situation on one end of the ice, by definition (do the math) the other team at that moment has a potential 2-on-1 going the other way. Shelley then pointed out that this goes against many players’ DNA who have played a "system" their whole career. These systems are designed to limit or prevent these odd-man situations. Because of the open ice in the new overtime format, the structure of the game goes out the window. So what will the players do in this virtual state of anarchy?

Penalties:

A League official recently told an anecdote about wanting to see the 3-on-3 on display first hand, so he traveled to a preseason game that had predetermined overtime regardless of outcome. He got to the game, and 10 seconds in, there was a penalty. The team that went on the ensuing 4-on-3 power play cashed in shortly thereafter, and the game was over. The official never got to observe any 3-on-3, outside of the first 10 seconds. His immediate thought: Will teams who are on the verge of giving up a big chance grab, pull, slash or tackle someone rather than give up a grade-A chance? Perhaps quite often; we'll see. Traditionally, 4-on-3 power plays are difficult to defend. For example, defenseman Mattias Ekholm won a preseason game in Tampa Bay on Sept. 23 on a 4-on-3, power-play goal to end OT.

Set Plays:

The Tampa Bay Lightning put their "Triplet Line" of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov out for much of the OT last Wednesday in Nashville. Three fast, skilled forwards who regularly play together - not a bad idea. However, on the opening faceoff to start overtime, Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper started with one defenseman and two of the three forwards. Once the Lightning won the opening draw, the d-man skated off in favor of the third forward as Johnson retreated behind his own net. From there, the dangerous trio ran a "set play" to break up the ice and get the first chance. They didn't score, but it was an interesting idea. A little structure within a sea of chaos.

Use the Goalie:

With so much open ice, the goalie can become an offensive factor. In that same Lightning and Predators game, a puck deflected up in the air toward Pekka Rinne early in OT. Rinne gloved it, and saw an opportunity to create offense. He attempted to take one stride past the wave of skaters crashing the net and place the puck on the ice to make an outlet pass to a gold jersey going the other way. Smart idea, but the ref whistled the play dead before he could execute the pass. He’d kept it in his glove an instant too long. We'll see how often goalies try to "make plays" like this.

It’s not always going to work out. In Saturday's Skate of the Union scrimmage, the Predators played an OT. A player was being pressured moving back toward his own zone. He attempted to play the puck back to goalie Brandon Whitney. The idea was to have him reverse the puck to the opposite wing and then up ice. But the pass was off line, and Whitney had trouble corralling the bouncing puck cleanly toward the side of the net. He was trapped by two opposing players behind the net, and then gave up an easy game winner on a wrap around stuff.

Principles to Live by:

While teams devise more precise methods of attack, there are principles emerging that look like they will be important. Here are a few:

  • Value possession: A careless turnover can be a killer.
  • Patience: Don't settle for a decent shot. Keep possession and go for a great shot. Lots of space should equal high quality chances.
  • Hit the net: An offset of the principle above. A missed or blocked shot that deflects or heads in the other direction is almost certain to create a prime chance for the opposition. Make sure you can get your shot through.
  • Get off the ice when you can: Being able to execute shift changes will be important - and not always easy. A gassed trio of players in the defensive zone is in serious trouble. Consider that there is the "long change" in OT, so a team that has an opponent trapped in their own zone for 30-45 seconds could execute a line change while still on the attack (their bench will be right at the blue line), sending fresh players in while the puck stays in play.

With all of these theories, the only thing I know is this: It's going to be crazy. These are huge points. Every OT I've watched so far has involved big chances for both teams. As always, there will be some luck involved. But the teams who can find ways to get more prime chances than their opponent consistently over the long haul will have success over the course of the season.

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