How Does Overtime Work in the NHL?

nhl overtime rules

When the third period of most hockey games ends, the team that has scored more goals will be declared the winner. However, every now and then, regulation will end with the teams tied and the game will go to overtime.

Overtime is some of the most exciting and fast-paced hockey you can ever see and the high stakes aspect of the period makes it a ton of fun. But just how do the overtime rules work in hockey? 

In the NHL regular season, overtime consists of a 5-minute period in which the teams will play 3-on-3 hockey. If either team scores a goal, overtime will end and the scoring team will prevail. If this period ends with no winner, the game will go onto a shootout to decide the victor.

Also, if a team is penalized in overtime, they won’t go down a skater, instead, the other team gets to add a skater so it is 4-on-3.

As for smaller and international leagues around the world, their overtime rules can vary. Some games may simply end in a tie, others may use a system similar to the NHL and some may use 10 or 20 minutes instead of the 5 that the NHL uses.

Overtime is Different in the Playoffs

While you now have an idea of how overtime works in the regular season, it is important to know that the rules are very different in the playoffs. In the playoffs, if a game is tied a 20-minute overtime period will be played. This will be played 5-on-5, like a standard hockey period.

If no one scores in the overtime period, instead of a shootout, the teams will simply play another period. These games can go quite long, and the record currently stands at six overtime periods during a game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Maroons in 1936.

The sudden death rule is still in effect in the playoffs, so the first team to score a goal in overtime will win the game. If no teams score, the game will simply go on and on until someone does.

The History of Overtime Rule Changes

Over the years, the overtime period in the NHL has undergone a lot of changes. Up until 1942, there was an overtime period after games that were tied after regulation. But that year, due to wartime restrictions, the overtime rule was discontinued in the regular season.

If teams were tied after the third period, the games simply ended in a tie. This continued until the start of the 1983-84 season when the NHL reintroduced an overtime period. This was a 5-minute period like we have now but was 5-on-5.

In 2015-15, the NHL made the most recent rule change to overtime, which was that the teams would play 3-on-3 as opposed to the standard 5-on-5. This was largely done in order to increase the scoring and excitement in overtime, as the game plays a lot faster with fewer players.

How Common is Overtime in the NHL?

So just how common is overtime in the NHL? While it varies year to year, it is generally just under a quarter of all NHL games that end up going to overtime. Most nights at least one game will go to an overtime period.

Overtime games are also common enough that they are often the difference when it comes to deciding playoff seeds. Because a team still gets a point for an overtime or shootout loss, even if a team has lost more games than another, if the losses were in OT, they could finish higher.

Overtime Strategy in Hockey

While it might seem like overtime is simply an extra 5-minutes of hockey, that is not how teams treat it. There is a lot more space in a 3-on-3 period, so teams will often use their fastest players and the ones who are great at dangling, to ensure they can keep the puck.

Also, puck possession is huge in overtime as the longer your team can hold the puck and cycle it around, the better the chances of a scoring chance opening up. There are also a ton of odd-man rushes in overtime and counter attacks are of huge importance.

If the game goes to a shootout, there is a strategy involved there too. You will want to send your best scorers out there to give you the best chance of winning. Putting a strong and physical defender out there for the shootout doesn’t often make a lot of sense.

While coaches will often choose their players who score the most points and have the best shots, there are also “shootout specialists”. These are players that just seem to have success in the 1-on-1 situation with the goaltender.

A good example of a shootout specialist is Frans Nielsen. He has played in the NHL for more than a decade, and has never scored more than 25 goals in a season, and has only reached 20 twice.

But despite this, he is known as one of the best shootout scorers of all time. In his NHL career, he attempted 106 shootout shots and scored on 49 of them. This near 50% rate is much better than most players who have scored hundreds of goals in their careers.

While the idea of overtime is a simple one to understand, there are a lot of rules involved and with the differences between the regular season and postseason rules, things can get confusing. I hope this guide has been able to help you learn more about how overtime works in hockey.

If you feel I missed any sort of crucial pieces of information, be sure to let me know in a comment below!

About Kale
Being from Canada, hockey is essentially a way of life. I instantly fell in love with the game since I was being put on skates. From playing as a child (and the occasional street hockey game with friends today) to being a fan for over 20 years, I’m here to share my knowledge and passion for hockey. Email:

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