NHL Overtime Rules: Everything You Need to Know

Hockey’s high octane pace and explosive action reach another level entirely once it moves into the overtime period. The National Hockey League abolished the tie in 2005, so no matter how long it takes, one team will exit the rink as a winner and the other as a loser. 

The sudden death nature of the overtime period means every breakaway can take your breath away. Hockey is an incredible spectator sport, but the rules that govern overtime are different between the regular season and playoffs and have been subject to changes in recent history. 

Be prepared for the road to playoffs and the heart-racing action of the Stanley Cup: here is everything you need to know about the NHL’s overtime rules.

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What is overtime?

In every NHL game, regulation time is comprised of three twenty-minute periods. If the regulation time has elapsed and the teams are tied, then an overtime period is played. These overtime periods are sudden death, so the first team to score wins the game immediately.

What are the overtime rules during the regular season?

Since rule changes in 2015, the overtime periods in the regular season are played with three skaters and a goalkeeper on each team. The reduced number of players opens up space on the rink to safely handle the puck to set up good goal-scoring opportunities. 

Taking and missing shots in the 3-on-3 overtime period is also a higher risk because a turnover is likely and could allow the other team to score a goal. 

When the referee calls a penalty during the 3-on-3 overtime period, the team that the penalty is called in favor of gets to add a fourth player. This is done instead of removing the offending player from the other team. 

Once the power play is over, the team that committed the penalty sends out another player, equalizing the rink into a temporary 4-on-4 formation until the next stoppage of play. 

Then the 3-on-3 format is restored when play resumes. If a team is already down a man and commits another penalty, they will play 5-on-3 until the power play ends. If neither team has scored after five minutes, the game is decided by a shootout.

During a shootout, each team selects three players who alternate taking penalty shots against the goalies. After all six players have taken their shot, the team with the most goals wins the game. If the same amount of goals have been scored, additional shootouts take place until a winner emerges.

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What are the overtime rules during the playoffs?

During the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is a fifteen-minute intermission before a sudden-death overtime period when regulation time ends. If neither team scores in twenty minutes, there is another fifteen-minute intermission followed by another overtime period until one team scores a goal. 

Predictably, this has led to some extremely long games. While overtime games, for the most part, conclude in the first period, there is a storied history of marathon-like games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The record for the most overtime periods in NHL playoff games is six. The game with the longest playtime in league history was 116 minutes and 30 seconds, concluding the 1936 Stanley Cup playoff match between the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Maroons. 

However, long games are far from ancient history. In 2020 the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets played in five overtime periods to decide a game that concluded six hours after the start time.

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How does overtime impact the regular season standings?

If a game includes an overtime period, the losing team will receive one point and the winning team will receive two points in the standings. In the past, when NHL games ended in ties, both teams would receive one point in the standings. 

The purpose of this rule is to mitigate the consequences of losing the inherently variable 3-on-3 sudden-death format and resulting shootouts. Earning zero points is simply too harsh of a punishment for a team that earned an overtime period by going even with their opponents for 60 minutes. 

The rule also preserves the spirit of the tie, even though ties are no longer possible. Overtime points make the road to the Stanley Cup even more hotly contested, and they often make a significant difference in the teams which make an appearance.

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History of Overtime Rules

Overtime rules have changed through the years. In 1921, the NHL had a 5-on-5 sudden death twenty-minute overtime period. In 1927 they changed the overtime period to 10 minutes, and then in 1928, they eliminated sudden death. After one ten-minute overtime period, the game would end, even in a tie.

In 1942, to accommodate World War 2 era train restrictions, the NHL got rid of overtime periods during the regular season. However, overtime rules remained the same for playoff games. In 1947 the NHL established that playoff games would have twenty-minute overtime periods separated by ten-minute intermissions.

In 1983 the league adopted five-minute sudden-death overtime periods for regular-season games, which were reduced from 5-on-5 to 4-on-4 for the 1999-2000 season. During this season, another rule was also established: the team that loses in overtime is awarded one point, and the winner two points. 

In 2005, the shootout became the tiebreaker for games where the 5 minute overtime period expired without either team scoring a goal. This rule change marked the end of ties in the NHL.

Before the 2015-2016 season, the regular-season overtime rules changed to institute a 3-on-3 format instead of a 4-on-4. The NHL felt that too many games were being decided by shootouts, and this corrective action has been considered successful by fans and players alike. 

Final Thoughts

Having fewer skaters on the ice increased scoring opportunities, as demonstrated by the increase in goals following the rule change. 

Despite all the changes in overtime rules, the Stanley Cup playoffs have been 5-on-5 with twenty-minute periods since 1947. Any momentum for changing these rules has been quelled by deference to tradition.


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