One might think that the three-on-three overtime format would benefit the Pittsburgh Penguins as much as, if not more than, any other NHL team. By the time the league adopted the format in 2015, the Penguins had already built a team of speed, finesse, and scoring — a style more akin to the international game.
While playing three-on-three, the open ice and wide passing zones ought to favor a team with Pittsburgh’s skill.
Considering it all begins with Sidney Crosby and extends to the many wingers or centers-turned-wingers who have played alongside No. 87 over the years — Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, the list goes on — one might expect to find the Pens near the top of the league in OT success. As well, defenceman Kris Letang (who has his own knack for scoring, averaging just under 10 goals per season) often plays during OT.
At this season’s mid-point, the Penguins have five OT losses, tied for third with eight other teams. Only the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and San Jose Sharks (four apiece) are between the Penguins and the league-leading Carolina Hurricanes who have but three OT losses. Overall, the Penguins are 8-5-3 in OT.
What Drives Overtime Scoring?
Perhaps it’s two-fold. First, defenders can’t be duped so easily. Regardless of any goal-scoring talent, having fewer shooters on the ice focuses the coverage.
The NHL is scoring 2.25 goals per period this season — which adjusts to about a half a goal for each OT period. The Penguins have scored eight times in 16 overtime games, quite higher than what would be the league average.
Secondly, open shooting lanes and clear angles might just benefit goalies. No matter how good an NHL shooter is, a goalie who can square up and see the puck will earn an advantage.
Traffic jams are part of the game, and goalies regularly give up fluttering, bouncing, disappearing shots throughout regulation. Three-on-three play eliminates scrums in the crease, giving goalies a distinct edge.
Recent Overtime Recap for Penguins
During January, Pittsburgh played six OT games. The shot totals for their first five were: Red Wings (4), Colorado Avalanche (2), Montreal Canadiens (2), Arizona Coyotes (3), and none versus the Sharks. Yet, one shot was all it took to beat the Philadelphia Flyers on the last day of the month.
Comparatively, the Penguins’ opponents tallied 13 combined shots on goal in those same games, even though both Philadelphia and Colorado registered zero.
A small sample size, but the similar shot numbers suggest that scoring opportunities are readily available during the five minutes of play for most teams. To compare three recent games, witness Crosby’s OT winner against Philadelphia.
He retrieved the puck between the circles on his shooting side, and the goal wasn’t achieved by skating in open space — it was done by beating Flyers goalie Brian Elliott with a low, fast shot.
In the shootout win against Arizona on Jan. 12, their shots were clustered between the circles, with two fired right in front of goalie Adin Hill. Presumably, he saw them well enough to force the shootout.
In an OT loss to the Sharks, the Penguins managed no shots while holding San Jose to just two. The difference-maker was Brent Burns’ quick right-handed shot during a rare overtime power play.
Defense Isn’t Forgotten
Of course, defense plays its part. Stick positioning, puck possession, and the willingness to block shots cannot be overlooked. If a defending team is able to play within a tight triangle, perhaps the goalie has a new best friend in the competition committee that created the three-on-three format.
Does a team ever play for the shootout and thus minimize the pressure in the five-minute overtime? Doubtful, as the extra points that are earned one at a time throughout the season could add up to a better playoff position later. Still, the deke-and-twirl method of scoring in a shootout might just benefit a Penguins team filled not only with talented shooters but also with skilled and creative skaters.
Regardless of trends and talents, a win is the sought-after…goal. Pittsburgh, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Hurricanes, are the only teams to have not lost a shootout as of Feb. 5. Something in their styles must be working.
Bigger defenders? Over-thinking scorers? Goalies honed in more specifically against less traffic? It’s hard to say what elements all play into an overtime that results in no scoring, but considering that the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, and New Jersey Devils were the only teams with 10 or more OT losses as of Feb. 5, there is something other teams, and the Penguins, must be doing right.
Dan has been writing for over 35 years and has covered all genres from poetry to playwriting and from the essay to nonfiction. His debut novel, “Between the Innings,” was published by Pocol Press in 2017. Dan spends his time working in the theatre, watching sports, and jamming to the greatest rock and roll band of all time, Rush.