NHL Playoffs 2011: The Year Overtime Took Over

Nearly a third of postseason games thus far have gone to extra time, which has been thrilling for hockey fans and newcomers alike


Reuters/Tim Shaffer

If the 2011 NHL playoffs had it a tagline, it would be: Bad for bedtimes, good for the game. Or, if you're the TV-promo type: THRILLS! SUSPENSE! SUDDEN DEATH EVERY NIGHT! IT'S THE 2011 NHL POSTSEASON ON NBC AND VERSUS!

Overtime has been a part of the hockey's playoff season for decades, producing some of the game's most memorable moments and controversial finishes. But this year fans of the extra session (or two) have been treated to an embarrassment of sudden-death riches: Since April 19, just one day (April 28th) has passed without an NHL playoff game going to overtime.

The numbers are staggering, even when the traditionally close action of postseason hockey is factored in. Of the last 35 playoff games this year, 17 have gone to overtime. In total, 32.7 percent of 2011 postseason games thus far have gone to extra time, compared to just 12.1 percent in the regular season. In last year's playoffs, only 20.2 percent of games went to overtime; the year before, it was 18.4 percent. To put it another way, there have been more OT contests in the last 35 playoff games this year than there were in the entire 2009 postseason, which had 87 games.

The numbers only begin to do justice to the dizzying array of overtime action that has left hockey commentators breathless and exhausted and fan bases of the 16 playoff teams emotionally drained. Among the slew of overtime games were two Game 7s—the quintessential sudden-death scenario—a double-overtime game that featured this spectacular game-saving save, and an extra-session battle where the winning goalie saved 46 consecutive shots.

Why does this matter? Because nothing can match the edge-of-your-seat suspense of overtime playoff hockey. The speed of the sport and continuous game action guarantees that a goal can materialize at literally any moment, and the absence of a shootout or other tiebreaking method means the games can go on and on and on until somebody scores (witness the five-overtime thriller in the 2000 playoffs or the Colorado Avalanche's championship-clinching victory in 1996 that went three extra periods). It's like a fifth-set tiebreaker in the U.S. Open or a neck-and-neck stretch run at the Kentucky Derby lasting for an unknown (but usually lengthy) period of time with the momentum swinging wildly back and forth from second to second.

The "unknown" factor is what truly sets postseason hockey apart. The diehard fan knows better than to run to the bathroom or make a sandwich during overtime, for teams can—and have—gone from the doorstep of victory to defeat in the time it takes to breathe. In the second overtime of Game 1 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, the Rangers' Brian Leetch hit the crossbar on a shot that would have given New York the win had it been an inch and a half lower. The Canucks corralled the loose puck and rushed the other way, and eight seconds later the game was over:

Begins at 2:25

Overtime hockey offers fans the promise of that excitement, and as such the rash of games that are going to extra time can only be good for the sport. While the late finishes of some OT games have undoubtedly left some fans bleary-eyed at work the next day, sudden-death hockey showcases the sport's strengths—excitement, frenetic action and the rapid changing of momentum—and gives NHL marketers a hook in their push for broader commercial appeal. Not everyone likes fights, stickhandling, or Canadian accents. But just about everybody is a fan of thrillers, and the last 15 days have been an almost nonstop, goosebump-inducing thrill ride.