What Is Sudden Death Overtime In Hockey? [Ultimate Guide!]

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Since its inception in the 1996-97 NHL season, the sudden death overtime (SDO) rule has been a game-changer. While some regard it as a gimmick or a financial windfall for the league, it actually provides a way of adding more meaningful hockey games to the season. And as the years have gone on, the popularity of the rule has only increased – particularly among fans, who have grown fond of the unpredictable aspect that comes with an extra period of play.

A Brief History Of Sudden Death Overtime

The idea for sudden death overtime originated with the National Hockey League (NHL) as a way to increase competitive balance and add more excitement to the game. Specifically, the league was looking for a way to rekindle the old NHL rivalries of the 70s and 80s, when games would often go into double overtime because there was simply more than one winner. And given the nature of the game, that often meant a lot of waiting around and a subsequent decrease in player safety.

To combat this, in the 1996-97 NHL season the league introduced an ‘alternate period’ of sudden death overtime (A-SDO) – similar to the current setup, but only one period would be played, and the first to score won. In this manner, the rule sought to add an extra period of competition, whilst minimising the number of injuries that occasionally occur in such practices as ‘traditional’ overtime (T-OT) – which is twice as long as A-SDO).

Why Does It Continue To Be Popular?

The sudden death overtime rule has always had a peculiar place in hockey. Whilst the concept of adding an extra period of play has been around for almost as long as the sport itself, the rule itself isn’t that old. In fact, it only dates back to the 1996-97 season. Thus, it’s not like the league has been ‘adding’ the rule for years, it’s more like they’ve been ‘tolerating’ or ‘encouraging’ it since day one.

Indeed, the rule has only increased in popularity since its inception, particularly among younger fans, who have embraced the competition that comes with the extra period. Since the 2000-01 NHL season, the number of regular season games that end in sudden death overtime has jumped from 22 to 33 games per season, adding another exciting twist to an already high-octane sport.

More Than Just ‘An Opportunity’ To Win

If you’re a fan of the sport, then you know that hockey is a difficult game to score in. Unlike many sports, the ‘home’ team doesn’t necessarily get the ‘W’ when the game is decided by a score – it tends to come down to a matter of luck more than anything else. This is certainly the case when it comes to sudden death overtime, where you don’t always get to keep the puck once the puck has crossed the goal line. Instead, the goal judges have the final say in these situations, and it’s been known for them to occasionally overrule the on-ice officials and deliver a scoreless tie even when one of the teams seems decidedly ahead.

As a result, the sudden death overtime rule has never been about just adding an extra period. Instead, it’s always presented itself as an opportunity for the winner of the game to cash in. As former Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov said of the rule, “It’s an opportunity to win some extra possessions. If you want to make the most out of it, you go for the jugular and try to win the game. That’s the beauty of it. You never know what can happen, and it can be a tie score, but it can also be the other way. You can really make things interesting.”

More Than Meets The Eyes

It’s not that scoreless ties in sudden death overtime are an uncommon occurrence. In fact, during the 2012-13 NHL season, there were only four occasions where a game went to sudden death and ended up with neither team scoring. What is unusual is that in three of the four cases, the teams were evenly matched – the other case featured the St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars, two teams that have dominated the league since the implementation of the rule. This is in contrast to the norm, where one team tends to find the short end of the stick more often than not.

As a result, the sudden death overtime rule tends to favour the faster team. Since the 1998-99 NHL season, the number of overtime games decided by a shootout has increased from 5.1% to 15.9% of all games, whilst the number of ties has decreased from 16.3% to 6.8% of all games. This is primarily due to the fact that teams have realised that the extra period can be an opportunity to work on their skating and stick handling skills, rather than just their shooting talent.

Less Waste Of Time

Even though there have been instances where a game has ended in a scoreless tie in sudden death overtime, the rule has never been about keeping the puck from going into the net as much as it has been about adding another period of action. As mentioned above, one of the primary reasons the sudden death overtime rule was created was to increase the number of meaningful games during the season. And since its inception, that’s exactly what’s happened. Between the 1996-97 and 2017-18 NHL seasons, there were 11,410 regular season games played. Of those, 22 games (0.2%) have ended in a scoreless tie. In other words, the rule has added 22 games of worth whilst taking away just as many meaningless draws. As a result, the overall season length has increased by ten games, from 171 to 181 games.

Improved Player Safety

As mentioned above, one of the primary reasons the sudden death overtime rule was implemented was to improve player safety. Since its inception, injury reports are available for all teams and all players, which means that coaches and players can track injuries before, during, and after the game. Thus, if a player suffers an injury that keeps them sidelined for a significant portion of the season, the coaches and general managers of the respective teams know exactly when to start worrying about their injury record and future effectiveness.

Creates More Exciting Games

Adding an extra period of hockey means increasing the chances of either team scoring a goal. This is, in effect, what happens when a team is awarded a power play going into the extra period. The same thing happens when a team is awarded a penalty shot going into the extra period. These are both situations where the onus is on the team that is awarded the power play or penalty shot to score, and that usually means more attractive hockey games for the fans.

Further adding to its popularity is that the sudden death overtime rule creates more exciting games. It all comes down to the simple mathematics of the situation where one team is clearly superior to the other. In those cases, the sudden death overtime rule creates more interesting plays and, as a result, more exciting games for the fans.

More Ways To Win

While the goal is to win the hockey game, every once in a while, the team that scores the first goal can still lose the game. This is particularly true when a goal is scored in the extra period. In those situations, the game can quickly turn into a free-for-all as the losing team searches for a way to even the score. The sudden death overtime rule provides an extra opportunity for the winner to cash in, increasing the intensity and competitiveness of the game.

Another advantage of the sudden death overtime rule is that it provides a way for teams to make up ground in the standings. After the regular season, the top eight teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. Due to variations in schedule length and the fact that some teams play fewer games, this can lead to teams being ranked below their actual standing in the standings. This makes the post-season more exciting for fans and, perhaps, even for the players as well.

In short, the sudden death overtime rule is a proven way of making the NHL season more interesting and, on occasions, more competitive. This isn’t something that can be said about every innovation that has been implemented by the league over the past couple of decades. Yet, the sudden death overtime rule has continued to be popular amongst fans and, in some cases, even the players.

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