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How does Overtime Work in Hockey?

By Leo J
Updated May 23, 2024
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Overtime in hockey, like in any sport, is a period of time used to determine the winner of a game that is tied at the end of regulation time. Hockey overtime falls under the category of "sudden death," meaning that the first team to score wins, but there are some variations. During the National Hockey League regular season, tied games are followed by a five-minute overtime period. The overtime period is played four-on-four, whereas regulation play features five players per side.

If neither team scores during the five-minute overtime, the teams engage in a "shootout." In the shootout, each team selects three players to take what is essentially a penalty shot - a one-on-one play between one player and the other team's goalie. The teams alternate shots in the shootout, and the team with the most goals out of the three attempts is the winner. Should the teams remain tied after the three rounds of the shootout, extra rounds are added until the tie is broken. Shootouts are often used in international play as well, though international shootouts usually consist of five rounds instead of three.

In the NHL postseason - the Stanley Cup playoffs - shootouts are not used, but ties cannot be allowed. If a game is tied at the end of regulation, the teams play a standard 20-minute period of overtime. It's still sudden death, but the period is longer. If the teams remain tied after the first overtime, there is an intermission similar to those between regulation periods, and the teams resume play with another 20-minute overtime period. This continues until one team scores.

Because scoring is relatively infrequent in hockey, this style of overtime can make for some extremely long games. The longest game in NHL history was a playoff game between the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons in 1936, which Detroit won 1-0 after more than 116 minutes of overtime - or nearly six full overtime periods. The six overtimes equate to two full regulation games, all played after the three regulation periods.

Fourteen times, the Stanley Cup Finals have ended on an overtime goal. The most recent was in 2000, when New Jersey's Jason Arnott scored on Dallas goalie Ed Belfour in the second overtime of Game 6 to give the Devils the Stanley Cup.

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Discussion Comments

By anon976797 — On Nov 05, 2014

Okay so if games can't end in a tie, what is the third number in a team's record? W-L-?

By matthewc23 — On May 18, 2012
@JimmyT - That's right. I once saw a game that went 5 and a half overtimes and I thought some of the players were going to collapse from the effort they gave and a few fans may have heart attacks from the amount of excitement.

These types of games have become rarer than they were ten years ago and that adds to the mystique of the playoffs, as well as adds a gimmick as you described.

Overall I think the change they had is great, however, I really do not understand why they need to have a 5 minute overtime, then a shootout. To me this 5 minute overtime is just a complete waste of time, with both teams not taking chances to win the game during this period, when they could have basically an even chance of winning in the shootout.

Does anybody know why they decided to do the five minute overtime and if there was some politics between the NHL and Players Association that led to this?

By JimmyT — On May 17, 2012

@jcraig - You are correct about the fatigue factor. If someone thinks about how often a player would have to play extra minutes in the games it will hinder their performance come playoff time. They changed the format to protect the players from being more susceptible to injuries, as well as to make the level of play better.

When one thinks about it this change is the perfect system, as they still keep the original format in the playoffs, which could lead to some epic battles that fans will remember for years to come.

One can also think that if a NHL playoff game goes 3 full overtimes that is basically two games being played. This means the fans are on the edge of their seat for so long and it is something that is awesome in the eyes of fans. This is a great gimmick in itself to promote playoff hockey and is something people do not usually think of.

By jcraig — On May 16, 2012

@jmc88 - I really enjoyed those types of games as a fan too, but the problem was not enough fans enjoyed this format enough to keep it because there were a lot of ties occurring.

Most fans want closure with their games and it was just too easy for a tie to occur and this made most fans angry at the old format and they demanded change.

Another thing to keep in mind is that these games, which were not unusual happened so often that it fatigued the players to the point it was hampering the length of careers as well as hindered their performances in the postseason.

They changed the format in the regular season to try and make the competitive level much better and improve the standing of the sport. They kept it the same in the post season because it is a lot fewer games in which they would have to play ridiculous amounts of minutes.

By jmc88 — On May 16, 2012

I remember the old days of hockey when it was not unusual for a game to end in a tie. As a fan I always thought overtime games were the best, not just because of the extra action, but the amount of extra action that could occur.

If one were to go to a basketball game and it went into overtime, unless it goes multiple overtimes it would only last 5 minutes longer. However, a hockey game could last a full 20 minutes longer making the length of the game and the experience of being at it a full 33% longer.

If one compares that to football games, they almost never go longer than a few minutes into overtime and even on the rare occasions that they last the full overtime period, which happens maybe once every 10 years, it is only 25% longer, while in hockey these instances were not at all uncommon.

I really wish that hockey would go back to this overtime format, because it was so exciting for the fans and they got to see so much more action for the price they paid for the tickets.

By anon118201 — On Oct 13, 2010

Great season so far for hockey!

By sevenseas — On Jun 12, 2009

This year, 2009, the seventh, and final game of the Stanley cup playoffs did not need to go into overtime. Pittsburgh won 2 to 1 over Detroit. And on top of that the game was played away from home.

Good job Penguins.

Both teams though played a very good game.

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