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Three on Three Overtime

Three on Three Overtime
Sabres still finding their learning curve

Is there any better way to settle playoff games than the way they do it in the National Hockey League? Overtime. Sudden death. Both teams playing to the point of exhaustion. Then all of a sudden a goal and just like that, the game is over. No sport does it quite the same as hockey does, and the outcomes are often exhilarating.

Some of the most epic moments in the sport have happened in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Buffalo fans can recite the great goals and memories that go all the way back to 1973, when Rene Robert’s dramatic and implausible goal in overtime of game 5 at the Montreal Forum sent the series back to Buffalo. Can you still hear the chant “Thank You Sabres” in your head? Chills.

But regular season overtime? Not so much. Since the league went to a five-minute four-on-four followed by a shootout back in 2005, hockey has been trying to find its legs to settle ties.

Last season 306 games ended in a tie in regulation, requiring the teams to go to a sudden death overtime. Of those games, 170, more than half, then went to a shootout to settle the contest. So last June, the NHL’s general managers approved the three-on-three sudden death overtime concept. Also on the table was a hybrid seven-minute overtime which was experimented with in the American Hockey League. Teams there went four-on-four for the first four minutes before cutting down to three players for the final three minutes. The players association went on record as opposing the addition of that extra time.

This past Saturday Sabres fans got just their second taste of the new overtime. The San Jose Shark’s Patrick Marleau pounced on a rebound 2:59 into the extra frame to give his team a 2-1 win over Buffalo.

What those in attendance got to see was not hockey. Not the way we know it. Two on ones going one way were rapidly converted to three on ones going the other way. With few players to cover the wide expanse of ice, San Jose had over a minute of continuous pressure in the Buffalo end before finally tallying the winning goal. The entire spectacle resembled a scripted version of pond hockey. Nothing else was needed but two recruits from the stands to go in the nets and play shinny.

“It all started at the other end of the ice. We took a shot, I wouldn’t call it a high quality shot,” said Coach Dan Bylsma after the game. “They got it and turned it into a long defensive zone shift and they got possession of the puck and took advantage of it.” Center Brian Gionta added, “We’re still being a bit tentative out there, finding out what works and what doesn’t. We got to try and keep possession as much as we can, We’ve really got to get the puck up ice and create some chances.”

So far, the players are giving the new brand of overtime hockey high marks. Former Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth remarked earlier this season, “It’s definitely pretty exciting for the fans and the for the players. It’s nice to have something new. It’s a lot of big ice for the guys.”

Patrick Marleau, the Shark’s game winning goal scorer, made a good point that sums it all up when he said, “If you can keep puck possession for a while you tire the other team out...key changes...puck possession. There are a lot of variables.”

What the new overtime rule does is give an inherent advantage to skill teams that have the ability to move the puck up ice well and create offensive zone pressure. Chicago’s Jonathan Toews owns the three on three format so far. Other teams are playing catch up.

So basically, the NHL is imposing a new gimmick, hoping that it will obviate the need for another gimmick, that being the shootout. So that would mean that at least the outcome would be decided on the ice, and not via a skills contest.

Will it last? Nobody has given an indication that the NHL is going to abandon this concept of settling games anytime soon.

Nonetheless, some of the purists and old timers are wistfully looking back to the good old days when teams played to ties, with a point being awarded to each side. It works just fine in European soccer. In hindsight, perhaps that is fairest outcome of them all, and the best for the integrity and artistry of the sport.

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