How does Overtime work in the NHL?

When you are watching a hockey game, sometimes you find yourself rooting for the game to go to overtime because it is so much fun! An overtime goal is one of the most exciting plays in hockey.

Let’s take a look at everything that is involved in the lead up to and actual play of overtime. 

How does overtime work in the NHL? During the regular season, if the game is tied after 60 minutes of regulation play, an overtime period with an additional 5 minutes will be added. If a player scores during this time, the game is automatically over and his team will be deemed the winner. Games not decided in the overtime period go to a shootout. 

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From World War II to the 1982-1983 season, when a regular season game was tied after the 60 minutes of regulation, the game simply ended in a tie. Then, at the start of the 1983-84 season, the NHL reintroduced the overtime period.

Let’s look more closely at the NHL’s current overtime setup with all the nuances (along with a video of the best 3-on-3 goals at the end!).

How the overtime period is played (and strategy)

When the overtime period starts, the number of players on the ice is reduced from 5-on-5 to 3-on-3 not including goaltenders. 

The NHL adopted this rule fairly recently in the 2015-16 season. They did this (and this is important) to increase scoring in the overtime period. Before this overtime was 4-on-4 and they found too many of the games were going to a shootout.

When you take two players off the ice, there is simply a lot more room on the rink to skate and stickhandle without facing a defensive player trying to stop you.

What they thought would happen — and what did happen — was a large increase in quality scoring chances and, therefore, goals. 

As you watch 3-on-3 overtime hockey, you will easily notice that the style of play changes. In typical 5-on-5 play, there are many more shoot-ins where the team with the puck will shoot the puck into the offensive zone and then go forecheck/bodycheck to get the puck back and setup a scoring chance. 

Whereas with 3-on-3, the play is all about hanging on to the puck as long as possible until you can get a scoring chance. The player with the puck, if he does not like the setup of the play, will simply turn around and skate back towards his own zone.

He can do this because he is not in danger of being checked by an opponent – there is plenty of empty space to skate into. 

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The players on a 3-on-3 will simply try to skate and pass the puck around until they create a good scoring chance. The one thing to be aware of is that once the scoring chance has been created and shot taken, if the team does not score this will often allow the team, who has just made the save, to be able to create a good scoring chance on the counterattack

The great thing about 3-on-3 is that it creates many odd-man rushes — an opportunity where the attacking team outnumbers the defending team when going in on the goal, such as a 2-on-1 chance or a breakaway. 

Overtime length and sudden death

The overtime period is only 5 minutes long. It goes by quickly. However, if a player scores during that time, the game is automatically over.

The term for this in hockey is ‘sudden death’. If people are used to watching soccer/international football then they are used to seeing the rest of the extra time period being played out.

This is not the same in hockey. Once a goal is scored, the game is over and the team who scored, obviously, is the winner. 

In soccer/football, this is sometimes played as the golden goal rule where the game also ends once a goal is scored. So, in soccer/football terms, overtime is like the golden goal. 

What happens if there are no goals in overtime?  

If there are no goals scored in the overtime period, then the game does still does not end in a tie, but, instead, it goes to what is called a shootout.

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A shootout in hockey is when each team gets to select three players who each get an opportunity to take a breakaway chance at the goaltender. The team who scores the most cumulative goals amongst the three shooters will be deemed the winner.

If the number of goals is tied after each of the three have shot, then each team will select an additional player to shoot. This happens until one team scores and the other does not. 

What happens if there is a penalty in overtime?

If there is a penalty in overtime, the team penalized does not go down to two skaters. Instead the teams will each add an additional skater and the power play will be 4 vs 3.

If the power play ends, the penalized player will come back onto the ice and the play will be 4-on-4 until the next stoppage in play where the teams will then go back to the 3-on-3 format. 

How many points in the standings are awarded to the team if they win or lose?  

An important point to note about overtime is if a team loses in overtime or the shootout, then they will still receive a point in the NHL standings. The winning team still gets the same two points as a team who wins in regulation, but in this case the loser in the game also gets a point.

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The additional point for overtime was introduced because of the reduced number of players on the ice and the shootout. Before overtime was instituted in the NHL, a team would get a point for a tie.

It seemed unfair and too wide of a gap to penalize a team who had played 60 minutes of quality hockey to get to a tie game and then penalize them the extra point for losing at a portion of the game that was not normal hockey, ie 5-on-5 hockey.

The effect of this is it does make the NHL standings very crowded, and the overtime/shootout loser points can become crucial in races to make the playoffs. 

How does overtime work in the NHL playoffs?

In the playoffs overtime works very differently from the regular season.

In the NHL playoffs, if a game is tied after 60 minutes of regulation play, the game will continue by adding an additional 20 minute overtime period at be played at 5-on-5 with the same rules as regulation time. The game will end once a goal is scored, and, subsequent overtime periods are added if no goal is scored in the previous overtime period.

When the regulation time ends, and the score is tied, the teams are able to take a 15-minute intermission to clean the ice and let the players rest. When the intermission is up, the players will then play a whole additional period.

If nobody scores after the 1st overtime period then there will be another intermission followed by a second overtime period. This pattern will continue until somebody scores. 

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Patrick Maroon scoring an overtime goal in Game 7 of the 2nd Round versus the Dallas Stars

If overtime periods keep getting added on, can’t this take a while? I mean how many overtime periods can there really be?

Well, the answer to that is actually… A LOT. Most overtimes are decided within the first overtime period, however it has not been uncommon for there to be multiple overtime periods.

The record for additional overtime periods is six! In fact, in the 2020 playoffs Tampa Bay and Columbus had a playoff game that added on 5 additional overtime periods, which ended more than 6 hours after puck drop.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are an honoured tradition for players/teams/fans and they do not want much of anything to be changed about it. So when the new type of overtime rules — 3-on-3 & shootout — were introduced, there has never been any appetite or really any discussion to adopt these in the playoffs. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do players get points for goals and assists scored in overtime or the shootout?

Players do get points for goals and assists scored during the overtime period, and the goalies statistics (save percentage, Goals against average) will also be affected. However, any goal scored during the shootout will not be reflected on the players personal stats or against the goals personal stats. 

Are there overtime or shootout specialists in the NHL?

For the overtime, I wouldn’t use the term specialists, but there are definitely players that a coach will want to put on the ice versus others. The coach will usually put out their top offensive players who can skate the best.

There is so much open ice that these highly skilled players can create so many scoring chances. Players who are a little bit slower have a hard time trying to keep up with the fast moving 3-on-3 play.

For the shootout, there is definitely more of a shootout-specialist feel. Most often, teams will simply use their best scorers; but, some teams definitely have players who may not score that much during the season but who are excellent in shootout opportunities. 

NHL Top 10 3-on-3 Overtime:

2 thoughts on “How does Overtime work in the NHL?

  1. Hi Wayne. Appreciate your site! Wondering how, and why, what I just saw happened. In Bruins Rangers preseason game, LaFreniere scored in 3 on 3 OT to win the game for the Rangers. Then the announcers say, “Now we’ll go to the shootout.” And then the shootout happens after the Rangers already won the game in OT. HUH?!?

    1. You’re right, Carl — it makes no sense! Just this year, they added for Preseason games that the coaches have the option to include shootouts, for practice and for the fans. There was a Kracken game this preseason that also included a shootout after a 5-3 win.

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