For all the optimism about 3-on-3 overtime providing the desired outcome of reducing shootouts -- like it apparently has in the AHL this season -- we haven't heard too much detailed description of what it's actually like.
That's what makes Colin McDonald's comments in the Post's "Backcheck" column by Brett Cyrgalis so interesting. McDonald is a recent callup by the Islanders who spent all of the previous two seasons with the team but spent 40 games of this season with their Bridgeport Sound Tigers AHL affiliate.
So he's experienced his share of 3-on-3 overtime, and he describes the approach as two extremes:
"There is one where the guys are very aggressive and trying to make plays, and if there is a chance that doesn’t go in, it’s an automatic 2-on-1 [or] 3-on-1 right back. So it’s very open, just chance after chance, back and forth. Those are very entertaining."
That makes sense. We've seen plenty of OT games at 4-on-4 that break out into back-and-forth exchanges of chances, particularly as the third guy joins the rush to try to get that winner.
But then anyone who's seen a slower 4-on-4 OT, or who's watched elite 4-on-4 roller hockey, can deduce how a more methodical, strategic pace can take hold and choke the life out of the game. The other extreme, in McDonald's words to the Post:
"But then there is the opposite, which some people don’t understand," he continued. "Because there is so much open ice, because what’s at stake is going to lead to a very good scoring opportunity against, some guys are very passive, a little tentative because they don’t want to make that mistake. It’s all about puck possession. I kind of compare it to watching a soccer game, with all that open field. Sometimes the game just slows down, it’s all possession and not taking chances."
The soccer comparison will alarm some people -- even myself, as a soccer fan who appreciates the steady buildup of that sport, would not want to see it in condensed hockey form after an already long night. But I suspect the "open field" problem could be even worse in hockey. At 3-on-3, there are more spaces to hide or play keepaway than there are on a fully staffed soccer field.
Still, ultimately this all comes back to a different incentive that is already built in: The NHL awards a standings point to each team in a game that is tied after 60 minutes. These players are just playing for the bonus; they have little to lose in a scoring chance against other than the ability to try the same. While some games will play out conservatively, and the NHL's top-end talent might cancel each other out and still lead to lots of shootouts, it's doubtful many coaches will put their players out there just to hold the tie.