The San Diego Gulls & Sudden Death

San Diego Gulls faceoff

Hockey’s 3-on-3 overtime rules offer thrills to fans and players alike.

The puck drops, and the game changes.

“A lot of what you’re doing is the exact opposite of what you’re preaching 5-on-5,” says San Diego Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins.

“There’s a lot of room to be creative, and a lot of chances,” says AHL All-Star rookie defenseman Brandon Montour.

This season, in both the National Hockey League (NHL) and the American Hockey League (AHL), when a game is tied after sixty minutes, a five-minute overtime period follows; sure to excite, but unlikely to make it all the way from start to finish.

Both leagues adopted a new rule for the 2015-16 season:  3-on-3 hockey in overtime for five minutes, with a three-man shootout to follow if necessary. It’s rarely necessary.

Since the start of the campaign, 144 AHL games have ended on a sudden death score, a gasp and a roar. Only 75 of the 219 AHL overtime games (34.2%) have gone to a shootout.

It’s not your father’s hockey game.

“It makes (offense) a lot easier” says Gulls center Mike Sgarbossa, who leads San Diego with two goals and two assists in their six sudden death wins, “You’ve got a lot more space to do what you want to do with the puck.”

“It’s fun for a skilled player. A lot of time in (5-on-5 action) it gets to be more of a ‘chip in’-type game, while in 3-on-3 you can use your skills. Sometimes it’s even more defensive, but a lot of times it’s one odd-man rush after another, and whoever can finish their chances is going to win.”

The Gulls have been finishing their chances in overtime, and of late they’ve had more chances to finish. During one stretch early in March, San Diego played four straight games that went to the extra time with a tie score. In the last three straight, the Gulls were the team turning the lamp and sending the fans home.

With an overall record of 6-2 in sudden death (and 10-4 in overtime counting shootouts), San Diego has proven to be a team that can stay cool when the game’s on the line.

“We have a good variety of skill, size, and speed on our team,” says winger Stefan Noesen, who is tied with Sgarbossa with two sudden death game-winners, “Realistically, going into 3-on-3, you want to have puck possession. We’re a pretty good puck possession team that can get in on the forecheck if we need to. You put those four or five things together, and you can be a pretty scary team.”

Part of the built-in advantage for the Gulls comes on the blue line, where San Diego sports the second-highest scoring defensive pair in the AHL in Montour and Shea Theodore. The slick and speedy Montour has assisted on half of the Gulls’ six sudden death game-winning scores.

“It’s basically like having a third forward on the ice,” said Noesen of his offensive-minded d-men, “There’s not much defense being played during 3-on-3, it’s pretty much run and gun.”

NHL games ended in ties after sixty minutes from 1942 to 1983. For the 1983-84 season, the NHL introduced a five-minute overtime period, still 5-on-5. Since 1995, each team has been awarded one point at the end of regulation, with overtime awarded the odd point to the victor. The AHL experimented with various forms of overtime over the years, including 4-on-4 hockey starting in 1998. In the 2014-15 season, AHL teams played seven-minute overtimes, with 4-on-4 for the first four minutes, and 3-on-3 for the last three.

Now, it’s 3-on-3 for five minutes, or more often, for some period of time less than that. While the action may look like organized chaos from the stands, Eakins says there is a lot of thought and strategy put into 3-on-3 overtime.

“There are a lot of things we preach during 3-on-3,” says Eakins, “When you’re 5-on-5, you want to get the puck deep (in the offensive zone) and change lines. When you’re 3-on-3, you need to have the puck on your stick to change (skaters). So if that means taking the puck back into your zone and holding it, or even playing it back to your goalie, that’s what we want to do.”

Puck possession leads to tired defensemen, and the opportunity for one great chance.

“We’re looking for that ‘ten bell’ chance in 3-on-3,” says Eakins, “When we’re 5-on-5, we’re looking for shots outside, players in front of the net, all that kind of stuff. When we’re 3-on-3, we want to hang on to that puck, maybe for 30 seconds straight, and be changing lines in their zone. Now you’ve got them tired, and now you can execute.”

Even if overtime may appear to be “defense optional”, Sgarbossa warns that a casual mentality will lead to a sad result.

“It’s a different kind of animal, it’s not the same game. People go out there and think ‘oh, it’s 3-on-3, I don’t have to work as hard’, but they’re wrong. To break away on a 2-on-1, you might need to have an extra burst to beat a guy, and if you don’t make smart line changes it’s going to hurt you.”

The chance to end the game with one glorious shot must be tempting, but it can also lead to ruin.

“Don’t look for that pretty pass, or a 50/50 play where you don’t know if you can put it on your teammate’s stick 100 percent,” said Sgarbossa, “We tend to say, let’s take our time with it, cycle back into our own end, and come with speed, come together into the offensive zone.”

3-on-3 overtime offers the opportunity for dynamic saves, stretch passes, breakaways, odd-man rushes and the chance for great skaters to make great moves. Is it fun for the top hockey players in the world to have all this space to operate with the game on the line?

“Oh definitely, it’s a lot of fun,” says Montour with a chuckle, “There’s a lot of (open) ice out there, and you can skate anywhere you want.  For me, that’s kind of my game:  I like to carry the puck up the ice, and with room like that you can be creative in what you do. If you get stuck, you can shoot it back in your own end and try again.”

“We’ve been good at it so far, and that makes it even better.”

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